Too little, too late – Tukwila Itanium is released

Silicon Graphics News


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Intel have announced that the massively delayed Tukwila Itanium processor is now available. HP is crowing about the performance advantages, but it’s not like they have much of a choice. Interestingly though, there have been no Altix related announcements from SGI.

The delays in Tukwila have hurt SGI’s NUMA sales, and the new Altix UV gives much better price/performance than Itanium could ever deliver. I predicted (Project Ultraviolet and the future of Itanium Altix) that we’d see a final Itanium Altix using Tukwila later this year, before the Itanium line was killed off.

With no product announcement from SGI to accompany the Intel fanfare, and with SGI’s Cyclone cloud offering accidentally offering a neat Itanium to x86 migration platform, it looks like we could finally be seeing the death of Itanium within SGI’s product line.

Silicon Graphics went there in the past with the R8000 MIPS CPU – it had the potential for massive performance, but only if you optimised the code and really knew what you were doing. That level of investment is always a niche game, and with the lower price and better performance for less effort from x86, Itanium was always going to struggle in the long term.

It’s just a shame SGI had to go bankrupt twice and shed a load of talented and skilled engineers to learn the lesson.

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Impressive SPEC benchmarks from SGI

Silicon Graphics News


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SGI have just posted some pretty decent SPEC benchmarks, and it’s clear that they’re aiming straight for the datacentre, calling out IBM, HP and Sun’s big SSI (Single System Image) machines. The benchmarks posted are for the Altix 4700, and the cynic in me says this is a bit of “rah rah rah” flag waving exercise before we see a Xeon version rolled out.

From the press release:

* SGI is more than five times faster than its next closest SSI competitor in the SPECfp_rate_base2006 floating point performance benchmark. Altix 4700 proved 5.7 times faster than the Sun SPARC Enterprise 9000, its next closest SSI competitor; IBM and HP products trailed further behind.

* SGI performed over four times better in the SPECint_rate_base2006 integer performance benchmark. Altix 4700 proved 4.3 times faster than the Sun product, its next closest SSI competitor.

* SGI outperforms IBM by almost three times in Java performance with SPECjbb2005 benchmark. Altix 4700 is the leader in Java performance as measured by SPECjbb2005, outperforming IBM by 2.8 times.

* SGI has five times higher aggregate memory bandwidth than its next closest competitors. Altix 4700 has the highest aggregate memory bandwidth in the world, five times higher than its next closest competitors, NEC and IBM.

The arguments over how unrealistic and artificial the SPEC benchmarks are will rage forever, but these are some pretty impressive numbers and some pretty bold claims from SGI. You can read the full press release here.

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Project Ultraviolet and the future of Itanium Altix

Silicon Graphics News


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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, archive.org 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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Will we be seeing big Nehalem Altix boxes from SGI this year?

Silicon Graphics News


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It looks like Intel will be pushing the next version of Itanium, Tukwila, out the door in the second half of this year. Issues with DDR3 look like they’re resolved, so it looks like a firm date.

But the usual Itanium suspects – SGI and HP – are strangely quiet. Silicon Graphics in particular use Itanium in big boxes – we’re not talking off the shelf kit here, they have a long lead time and the sales process is equally long. So it would make sense for SGI to be talking to customers now about Tukwila equipped Altix 4700s – 6 or 8 cores on a 1024 processor machine is serious bragging rights.

This raises the interesting possibility that Silicon Graphics will be (finally) dropping Itanium, and instead going for Nehalem Xeons in the big Altix gear, utilising their nifty Quick Path Interconnect.

With all the financial woe going on, this would make serious cost savings for Silicon Graphics – I think we’ll be seeing some interesting product announcements this year.

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Intel’s Nehalem opens up some options for Silicon Graphics

Silicon Graphics News, supercomputing


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Intel have announced their “Nehalem” processors will be coming to market in Q1 2009, with 2, 4 or 8 cores. Nothing to spectacular there (see Sun’s OpenSPARC CPU to see how to really scale with cores) but moving away from arguments about how multi-cores are better, Nehalem uses Intel’s QuickPath Interconnect (QPI) and that’s of great interest to Silicon Graphics customers.

QPI will be used by both Nehalem Xeon processors and the upcoming Tukwila Itaniums. This means that SGI’s biggest class of box – the Altix 4700 – could in theory be perfectly happy with either newer Itaniums, or make the move to cheaper Nehalem Xeons.

The next generation of Altix ICE blades will definitely be sporting the new Xeon processors (along with double data rate (DDR) Infiniband), but it’s the scalability of the bigger Altix NUMA boxes that are of interest to many customers. Given the architecture can scale to 128TB of shared memory, and with installations running up to 4096+ cores, being able to shove 8-way CPUs per socket would be a massive shot in the arm to the system – along with the increases in memory density and cooler running that will come with the new processors.

Being able to shove the cheaper Xeons into the high end offerings also means Silicon Graphics can lower production costs and increase margin, which given the recent quarterly earnings reports can only be a good thing.

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