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Cray, Intel, and Microsoft birth baby supercomputer

Gigaflops for mom and pop shops

Supercomputer maker Cray today announced a new desk-side, low-end, bladed office supercomputer in conjunction with chip partner Intel and software partner Microsoft. The new CX1 supercomputer is the first product to come to market after Cray tapped Intel as its future strategic chip supplier, dissing long-time chip partner Advanced Micro Devices.

Cray, which has been struggling financially since clustered Linux boxes became the rage in supercomputing a decade ago, is known for creating the fastest vector and parallel supercomputers in the world, and with the CX1, it is trying to push down into a market where newbies in life sciences, digital rendering, financial services, and other fields are playing around with supers for the first time.

It's also attempting to lure scientists and researchers with discretionary IT budgets to forget using shared, giant clusters and get their own box and tuck it in behind their desk where no one can see it to run their workloads locally. The personal supercomputer is not a new idea, but this is the first time that Cray is trying it out in the market.

If you want to cut off the air that Linux breathes, as Microsoft certainly does, one of the choke points where you try to get your Windows tentacles wrapped around is supercomputing, or what people for some reason now call high performance computing. But to take on Linux in HPC requires a slightly different tack than what worked for Windows in the data center, and it requires something a little more subtle than the cheap software and portability across architectures that made Linux the darling of academic, government, and corporate supercomputing centers in a mere decade, supplanting Unix.

Microsoft's strategy - one that no supercomputer maker and no X64 chip maker can ignore - is to attack from the bottom, to find those myriad new HPC users who never learned Unix, never learned Linux, and have no desire to. This strategy is what moved Windows from the desktop to the data center in the 1990s, and it worked so brilliantly that Windows machines account for more than two-thirds of server revenues each quarter and the lion's share of shipments. People use the software they are comfortable with, and Linux was an easy transition for Unix shops, just as moving from a Windows desktop to Windows servers is relatively simple.

While technically speaking, the CX1 minisuper is certified to run Red Hat's Enterprise Linux 5 and can certainly run Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 (which is the preferred Linux on Cray's high-end, massively parallel Opteron boxes, the XT4 and XT5, and which has not been certified on the CX1), Red Hat and Novell were not invited to the CX1 launch party, while Burton Smith, now a technical fellow for parallel computing at Microsoft and formerly the chief scientist at Cray and the company that ate it in March 2000, Tera Computer, as well as Kyril Faenov, general manager of the Windows HPC business at Microsoft, were given great swaths of time during the launch to espouse the virtues of Windows HPC Server 2008. You do the math.

Windows HPC Server 2008 is the latest implementation of the supercomputer-tuned variant of Windows, which includes support for the Message Passing Interface (MPI) protocol used to create supercomputer clusters as well as optimizations in Windows to make it better able to squeeze every ounce of performance out of X64 iron. Microsoft is poised to announce Windows HPC Server 2008 next week in New York at a supercomputing event hosted on Wall Street - provided any of the big banks and trading houses are still there to host the event.

The CX1 minisuper is really a blade chassis with integrated Gigabit Ethernet and InfiniBand switches that can be loaded up with blades for computing, storage, and visualization - the latter being what you and I would call in the old days "being a graphics workstation."

The blade chassis has eight slots and runs off normal wall power, not the 240-volt power required for big iron in data centers. The CC48 blade has a single Xeon socket and lots of memory expansion for memory-intensive HPC workloads, while the CC54 blade has two Xeon slots and a little less memory.

The CV54-01 blade is what is called a visualization node, and it is basically a workstation on a blade, complete with a high-end nVidia graphics card and an optional GPU to boost display capabilities. The CS54-04 blade is a storage blade that takes up two slots and has four 2.5-inch SAS drives and the CS54-08 blade takes up three slots and offers eight drives.

Using the integrated switches in the CX1, up to three boxes can be lashed together into a cluster, and for those shops who need to add more power to their clusters, they can use external switches to do the job. A single chassis can house a maximum of 4 TB of disk or -when using the fastest 3.4 GHz quad-core Xeons Intel has delivered - up to 768 gigaflops of computing power in a single chassis. (That's eight two-socket blades using quad-core Xeons, for a total of 64 cores). Obviously, three of these CX1s linked up yields 2.3 teraflops - a nice size for a personal super.

Because the CX1 sits in an office environment, the front of the chassis has an optional noise cancellation add-on, which drops the whirring of fan noise down to the point where it is actually legal to put it in an office environment.

The base price of the chassis with bare bones blades and switches is $25,000. When the machine is fully loaded, the price tag comes to around $80,000 or so. Cray is selling the CX1 boxes online starting today - the first time a Cray machine has been sold online and directly - and expects to have volume shipments revved up by the end of October. ®

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