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Europe Jumps Into HPC Fray With Aurora

The recent Top500 supercomputer list showed that high-performance computing (HPC) is pretty much an IBM and HP world. The two IT giants had 394 of the 500 systems on the list between them (HP with 209, IBM with 185); the next closest competitors were SGI and Cray, with 19 systems each.

However, there's a European firm with a new design that might make its presence felt in future Top500 lists, and it's an unlikely entrant: Eurotech, a firm from Amaro, Italy, that normally makes wearable PCs and has never been in the HPC has stepped into the arena with a new design called Aurora.

Aurora made its surprise debut at the recent Supercomputing 09 conference in Portland, Ore. It was a surprise because other than the French systems maker Groupe Bull SA, there aren't a lot of well-known HPC firms in Europe.

"It's an interesting system, no doubt about. It was on the short list of interesting new things at the HPC show," said Steve Conway, research vice president for HPC with IDC. "There is no one individual thing is groundbreaking. It's the combination of things."

The systems are built on Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) Xeon 5500 processors, like more than 400 computers on the Top500 list. What makes it different is the use of precision liquid cooling instead of the old standby air cooling, the heavy use of solid-state drives (SSDs) and a 100Gbit networking fabric.

The use of water cooling is rare in HPC systems. But in a large system it can lead to considerable savings, since chilled water is already used for air cooling. Instead of using the chilled water to cool the air and then using the cool air on the server, the chilled water is delivered directly to every component.

Aurora has a control mechanism to monitor each component in the system and control water flow appropriately. Because of this, Aurora claims it can achieve up to 60 percent power savings over traditional air cooling.

HPC is starting to give liquid cooling a second look because air cooling, while more efficient, is also more expensive, said Conway. "Clearly there is a trend back [to liquid cooling] because the average HPC system size is growing rapidly," he told InternetNews.com. "The heat generated by these systems on average is growing at a fairly rapid rate. Even though vendors are doing things to address that, the growth in the average system size is outpacing them."

Many HPC shops are looking at multi-petaflop and even exaflop computing, and that means enormous power requirements. Some systems are looking at 50 megawatt footprints, enough to power a small town. "So air cooling is just not going to do it for the really big systems," Conway said.

The use of SSDs in place of 15,000 RPM drives will also drive power and cooling savings, because the drives draw less power and generate less heat. Conway thinks the Aurora can get close to its promised savings. "I think they will get significant power savings, mostly from the liquid cooling and secondarily from the SSDs," he said.

Aurora sports 100Gb/sec cluster interconnect bandwidth per node through a 60Gb/sec 3D torus and a 40Gb/sec Infiniband interface. A torus is a mesh that Conway described as "looking like a screen door up close." A 2D torus is a flat mesh, while a 3D torus connects the edges so data doesn't need to travel all the way around the mesh.

"Aurora is the smart system for a resource-conscious world," Giampietro Tecchiolli, Eurotech group vice president and CTO, said in a statement. "With Aurora it is possible to achieve unprecedented scalability and energy savings. In designing Aurora, we have taken a radical approach to efficiency, both in raw performance and in TCO management."

All told, this allows for multilevel synchronization networks for highly efficient scalability. The company claims each rack can hold between three and 24 teraflops of performance, and 42 racks combined can reach a petaflop.

Conway said IBM, HP and other HPC vendors are capable of doing what Aurora offers, but wonders if they will.

"It's a matter of what market are you aiming at," he said. "Some times the biggest OEMs have to build products that appeal more broadly. The Aurora product will appeal to the subset of the market that's willing to pay a little more for some extras."

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