RealTime IT News

SGI Aims High with NASA Deal

In the second major supercomputing contract announced this week, Silicon Graphics (SGI) said NASA has chosen its Altix servers as the base for a massive Linux system geared to help scientists study space and aerospace engineering.

The Space Exploration Simulator supercomputer, one of the largest Linux systems ever assembled, will comprise twenty 512-processor Altix systems, 10,240 Intel Itanium processors and an SGI InfiniteStorage array of 500 terabytes.

Financial details of the contract were not disclosed, but the NASA Advanced Supercomputing Facility (NAS) will use the system in an effort called Project Columbia to simulate space missions and design space exploration vehicles and aircraft.

The Simulator will be housed at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. SGI has delivered three of the new Altix machines to NASA, with the complete supercomputer to be completed over the next several months.

With SGI's NUMAlink interconnect shuttling data across nodes up to 200 times faster than conventional interconnects, Altix systems are tailored for large-scale research projects, according to an SGI statement. Altix systems also feature a standard 64-bit Linux operating system primed for technical applications.

Addison Snell, research director of High-Performance Computing at research firm IDC, praised the deal.

"As NASA pushes the boundaries of space exploration through the solar system and beyond, simulation will play a role of increasing importance," Snell said in a statement. "The installation of the Space Exploration Simulator is a significant achievement for NASA, SGI, and Intel."

For SGI, the project is a boon in a landscape where such lofty supercomputing contracts are scarce but competition remains tough. SGI competes for such deals with Cray, IBM, HP, Dell and Sun Microsystems, all of whom log giant machines on the Top500 list of the world's largest supercomputers.

IBM earlier this week announced that it had secured a deal with the U.S. Navy and Department of Defense to build a large supercomputer cluster for national defense. That deal numbered in the tens of millions, IBM said.

As for the collaboration among NASA, SGI and Intel, Project Columbia builds upon an eight-year partnership in which NASA and the companies last year unleashed the world's first 512-processor Linux server, the SGI Altix system Kalpana, named after Columbia astronaut Kalpana Chawla.

Intel chips power most of the world's largest supercomputers, so NASA's choice is hardly a surprise. However, the deal is a significant boost for the chipmaker's Itanium architecture, which has slowly been gaining traction in spite of competition from AMD and IBM.

The deal is a tremendous blessing for Linux, the open source operating system many industry experts said could not scale to the enterprise class of computing that Unix systems could.

Looking forward, NASA and SGI are working to enhance the Altix architecture to support globally addressable memory across 2,048 processors in a single system. This would yield a supercomputer with a single pool of shared memory to run many applications faster than a cluster of small systems whose memory is fragmented and distributed across an interconnect.