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.

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