Notes from SGI Mobile Innovation Centre visit, Sept 12, 2003

On Sept 12 2003, SGI brought their shiny new Mobile Innovation Centre to UW, the first stop on a brief Canadian tour before it spends the winter in the US and returns to Canada next spring. The MIC is a transport truck containing a machine room full of spiffy gear and a presentation room with a large 3-panel projection screen display. There was an Altix, an Onyx/Origin, a 14 terabyte storage array, Tezro and Fuel workstations, and various machines from other vendors (Sun, IBM, WinTel) to demonstrated CXFS file sharing across platforms.

Here are a few semi-random notes I jotted down while attending three presentations that dealt with HPC, graphics, and storage.



The Altix is basically SGI's ccNUMA architecture that we already know from the Origin series (MIPS/IRIX) with different CPUs and a different OS. It uses the Intel Itanium II CPU and runs Linux. On the common performance benchmarks, it handily stomps the competition and has one several "Best Product" sorts of awards. Graphics not yet available, but coming soonish. An Altix is coming soon to UW.

Intel compilers are provided. SGI is working closely with Intel to apply SGI's HPC compiler expertise to the Intel compilers. They're not quite as good yet but are very close (one commentator rated the Intel compilers as a 9 if SGI's MIPS compilers are a 10). SGI's compilers are very good at figuring out the right combination of command line options to assume for your hardware/software. Intel's aren't as good at that yet.

One case was cited where a biotech company found that an Altix outperformed a Beowulf cluster at about a 10:1 ratio (i.e. needed ten times as many CPUs in the cluster to get the performance of the Altix). This case had 20 databases of about 6-10 GB in size. In the Beowulf cluster, each node needed maximum memory and started a job by loading data from the disk system and doing repeated I/Os on it. On the Altix, the data needed to be loaded only once, only an average/moderate amount of memory was needed per node, and jobs ran immediately referring to data in shared memory without having to do I/Os to disk. So an "inexpensive" Beowulf cluster is not always the best tool for the job.

Altix runs SUSE with no mods, or RedHat 7.2 plus SGI open source stuff plus SGI ProPack. That's because SUSE has accepted SGI's various HPC enhancements faster than RedHat.


The graphics presentation focussed a lot on medical sciences, possibly due to the audience who registered for this session. We saw a live interactive 3-D demo of zooming in on Earth from outer space down to some particular mountain in the Matterhorn. We saw another demo which was a tour through a 3-D virtual recreation of a Roman bath reconstructed from archaeological data and photographs of the actual ruins. In both cases the images were not pre-recorded videos, but were being generated by sucking individual images off the storage array and processing it with the graphics system in the on-board Origin/Onyx computer.

The cool idea here is that vizualization allows collaboration in the experiencing of the data first-hand, rather than after-the-fact which relies on individual (biased) interpretation of text-based representation of the data. Text-based learning (Platonic) won out millennia ago over experiential learning (Epicurean) because text-based is portable and transmissible, whereas experiential is transient and neither portable nor transmissible. But nowadays, computers are powerful and fast enough and data sharing is manageable enough that we can once again benefit from experiential learning. And even better, we can now experience through computer simulation/visualization phenomena which are too big, too small, too dangerous, no longer in existence, not in existence yet, etc. So visualization is a very important tool. Their prediction was that vizualization will become ubiquitous and portable like text is now.

As an example, the success rate in the oil and gas industry for drilling a productive well has jumped from 10% to 70% thanks to computer visualization. As another example, visualization has allowed neurosurgeons to see in 3D the complete brain and vascular systems of conjoined twins and plan and rehearse the separation surgery virtually before doing it successfully in real life. There were several other cool examples from the world of medecine and pharmaceuticals.

An SGI software product that helps with visualization is VizServer. (Prof. Baranoski in CS has this product on his SGI system as does Prof. Seebohm in ES.) It's basically a tool that lets you keep the data and the generation of the graphics central on the big machine, and display it remotely on clients of various platforms (not just SGI). Aside from collaboration, this has security benefits (data never moves off-site, just the image does), integrity benefits (no copies of the data to get out of synch or version drifted or corrupted).

The vast amounts of data involved in visualization and analysis of multiple disparate data sets makes data management an essential issue. That's the next topic.

Data Management

Aside from a variety of hardware storage products (which they pretty much did not even talk about) SGI has a variety of software for data storage and management. (We have some SGI hardware storage products already -- TP9100 RAID arrays are on flexor, iqc1.math, iqc2.)

XFS is SGI's file system. They've open-sourced it and now some UNIX competitors use it too. It scales to 18 million terabytes in a single file system. (IIRC, they have a customer with 70 terabytes in a single file system.) The rest of the stuff is based on XFS.




Glossy Brochures

I picked up glossies on:


Aside from various UW people, I saw people from Intel, WLU, the Hospital for Sick Children, DALSA, and other high-tech companies from the region. SGI was represented by their Canadian president, their Canadian director of business development (who is also on the board of CANARIE), their Canadian marketing manager, their Science and Technology business development manager from California, a few senior engineers from Canada, additional sales/marketing reps from the USA, and our local sales rep. The local TV station sent a camera and reporter but I don't know if anything made it to broadcast.

Notes by Robyn.