SGI takes Altix Itanium server to midrange

Silicon Graphics Inc. Monday will begin shipping a new, smaller member of its Altix family of technical computing servers, called the Altix 350.

The Altix 350 is designed to work in clustered or departmental configurations, said Andy Fenselau, the Altix product line director. It is designed for "the large portion of the technical midrange market that needs 64-bit (processing), but would very much like something that scales to more than two processors," he said.

Like SGI's Altix 3000 series systems, which were launched last year, the new server will be based on the Linux operating system and Intel's Itanium 2 processors. It will use SGI's NUMAflex memory management technology as well as its ProPack management software, which has been ported to Linux from SGI's Irix operating system.

SGI has developed a modular architecture for the system that lets users add memory, I/O or processors as they need them, Fenselau said. The Altix 350 can support as many as 16 processors and can be purchased with the Itanium 2 chips codenamed Madison and Deerfield, or with the DP Itanium chips, which are optimized for high-performance computing, he said.

"Traditionally, if you want to buy a 16-processor system, you have to buy a big box," said Sarang Ghatpande, a research analyst with D.H. Brown Associates. Altix 350 users can start with smaller, less expensive configurations and work their way up to 16 processors, he said. "The flexibility is the interesting thing, and they have a low-cost entry point."

The Altix 3000s, which sell for between $70,000 and $1 million, have been a hit for SGI, which is struggling to regain its dominance in the high-performance technical computing market, according to Ghatpande. "I think Altix is the best thing to happen to SGI in a long time," he said.

More than 150 customers have purchased Altix 3000s since they were launched a year ago, SGI said, including Tata Motors Ltd., Marathon Oil and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

PNNL has had a 128-processor Altix 3000 in production since September, where it has been running calculations for computational chemistry, according to Scott Studham, the associate director of advanced computing at the national laboratory.

"It's good to see SGI develop a well-balanced portfolio," said Studham, whose department purchased 18 high-performance computers for PNNL last year to do everything from studying the chemical pathways inside cells to simulating power grids and the migration paths of salmon.

One of the systems Studham recently purchased was a 16-processor Altix 3000. In that case, the smaller and less expensive Altix 350 might have been a better choice, had it been available, Studham said. "I probably could have got a better deal," he said.

With a single-processor Altix 350 based on the low-power Deerfield Itanium 2 processor listing for $12,199, the new system may help broaden the market for Itanium systems, Ghatpande said.

A typical 4-processor Altix 350 configuration will list for $21,599 or about $5,400 per processor, according to SGI..

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