Project Ultraviolet and the future of Itanium Altix

Silicon Graphics News

Those paying attention to Silicon Graphics history will recall Dr. Eng Lim Goh back in 2004 talking about Project Ultraviolet – a supercomputer that used different types of processor types in a single frame. Although the original white paper has vanished from the SGI site, has a mirror available here.

The idea of HEC Architecture (High Efficiency Computing) and Multi-Paradigm Computing is a good one, and we’ve already been seeing the fruits in that, specifically Altix gear with FPGAs, and the rise of the GPGPU. Is the current Project Ultraviolet the same beast as the one outlined 5+ years ago?

I mentioned back in February the possibility that, with Tukwila delays and Nehalem processors having a NUMA interface, the time was ripe for SGI to put Nehalem Xeons into the Altix.

Now that Rackable have taken over the shell of SGI and have finalised their product offerings, we can see an interesting mix of processing power. Rackable have both Opteron and Xeon in their gear, whereas the (old) SGI had Xeon and Itanium.

With the Nehalem Xeons having the QuickPath interconnect, and Opteron always having had the NUMA HyperTransport, is now the time for Itanium to be shown the door?

HPCWire and InsideHPC (who know their stuff and are well worth a read) seem to think so. Even the eternally inaccurate TPM at The Register is agreeing (top tip, Timothy – NUMAlink is not a ‘cluster’ interconnect).

Xeons and Opterons inside the shared memory Altix make a lot of sense – immediate cost savings, the chips already have NUMA interconnects so not too much engineering required, and an instant boost in apps and developers.

Existing Itanium customers aren’t going to be too happy, but I’d point people at John Mashey’s excellent essay on the design behind the NUMAflex architecture. These machines were designed to be flexible, to swap CPUs without having to swap the frames, I/O subsystems, and everything else, thus protecting the customer’s investment in the technology, and lowering the price (and pain) of upgrades.

SGI CEO Mark Barranechea has re-confirmed the company’s commitment to Itanium on his blog – but with so many existing customers running on Altix gear, it would have been a PR disaster not to.

I think it’s clear that the next Altix cc:NUMA system will be based around Nehalem Xeon processors. The odds are good that we’ll be seeing an Opteron version as well, and it’ll be interesting to see how that stacks up against offerings from Cray.

As for Itanium? I think we will be seeing a Tukwila based Altix next year sometime. After that, I doubt very much we’ll see future Itanium kit from SGI.

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