SGI: Still Alive And Kicking

The Top 500 list of supercomputers rarely contains real shockers, but in November, readers might have been surprised to find that No. 3 was a 126-teraflop computer at the New Mexico Computing Applications Center.

What may be surprising is that the computer is from SGI.

Remember SGI? The company once known as Silicon Graphics Inc. had the first 64-bit processor on the market, the MIPS R4000, way back in 1992. It was the company many firmly associated with Hollywood special effects in the 1990s, such as the computer-generated dinosaurs of “Jurassic Park.” Whatever happened to it?

Changing times. IRIX and MIPS, the company’s proprietary Unix and semiconductors, respectively, fell out of favor as the industry shifted to x86 and Linux.

The company attempted to alter course in the late 1990s by embracing Windows NT, but instead of avoiding the iceberg, it sailed straight into it. The NT machines were duds and customers defected to Sun or other Intel platforms.

Since then, SGI retrenched and refocused its efforts away from Tinseltown.

Today, the company — now known officially as SGI — concentrates on the very high end of performance computing, building its Altix line of supercomputer-scale machines from Intel Xeon and Itanium chips.

At the same time, it’s utilizing the computer architecture it first developed in the 1990s for MIPS and running Linux with many IRIX technologies.

“We’re all about high-performance computing,” Dave Parry, SGI senior vice president and general manager told “We’re not looking at the value market or to sell a farm of Web edge servers. All of our competition are primarily in the general-purpose computing space and are repurposing their systems for the HPC [high-performance computing] space. We’re building purpose-built HPC systems.”

The message seems to be getting out. SGI was the number four vendor on the Top 500 supercomputer list with 22 machines, behind IBM (with 232), HP (166) and Dell (24).

Parry said he feels SGI has three distinct advantages: its use of established, legacy technologies like Non-Uniform Memory Access (NUMA) in connection with modern CPUs; power and space efficiency; and its fairly easy installation.

Getting back to profitability remains SGI’s biggest task, which it is working on achieving by sales growth — since it’s cut everything else.

Despite emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year, SGI hasn’t been profitable since 1998, when it saw $3.6 billion in sales for the year. It barely made $500 million during its last fiscal year.

Still, sales are up 40 percent over the same quarter last year, the company said.

Steve Conway, research vice president for HPC at industry analyst firm IDC, described the HPC market as a good fit for SGI.

“The market that they are in has been growing so fast that it’s a great spot to be,” he said. “You don’t need to look outside of it to have good growth. That market has nearly doubled since 2002 to $10 billion in 2006, and we expect it to keep growing at two to three times the rate of the commercial server market through 2011.”

Conway said it’s too soon to tell whether SGI has turned the corner, but that the company definitely has a stronger direction than it did six months earlier. He attributes that to new management and sales people with HPC experience and its blade offering, Altix ICE, which makes the technology more affordable.

“People love the stuff they build, but SGI has a reputation for being expensive, so they haven’t sold it in volumes to keep the company healthy,” Conway said.

The NUMA architecture, first used by SGI and others working in cluster computing in the ’90s, now supports Xeons and Itaniums with Linux. As a result, NUMA-based systems can run many of the IRIX’s high-performance features, like the XFS file system and kernel scalability.

The result is that SGI’s Altix servers can offer, for example, 4,850 dual-core Itanium processors (that’s 9,700 cores) with 40TB of shared memory, partitioned into 19 separate 512-core systems.

The systems use rear-door water chillers, resembling refrigerator coils, to cool expelled air. Parry estimates that 95 to 100 percent of heat can be eliminated by passing the hot air through the cooling coils on the back of the machine.

SGI’s other selling point is what Parry called the “power up and go” nature of the systems.

“We do factory integration and testing of the system — we bring together all the elements to test it,” he said. “So what we ship to the customer is a system ready to plug in and go … rather than a bunch of crates of parts that have to be plugged in and validated before they can go into work.

“There’s a critical ROI message in that, because the time value in technology is high,” he added. “Having the latest technology shipped to you and then not being able to use it for six months is a high cost to the customer.”

IDC’s Conway said HP and IBM do that as well, but he did commend SGI for reliability out of the box.

“There are supercomputer vendors who sell systems that turn out not to work,” he said. “SGI have good mindshare, and they still have a very good reputation on the market as a technology company. They make very good stuff that just works.”

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