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Stephen Shankland

Staff Writer, CNET

MOFFETT FIELD, Calif.–Silicon Graphics Inc. on Monday plans to announce a new Linux computer, a machine that uses Intel’s newest Itanium 2 processor and packs the chips twice as compactly as current machines do.

The system is the next generation of the Altix 3000 family that SGI launched in 2003 for high-performance computing tasks. SGI calls the system the BX2 because it has twice the bandwidth to transfer data within the system.

The BX2 family also is the newest part of SGI’s effort to turn around its flagging financial fortunes. The Altix family lets SGI benefit from advances Intel makes with processors and Linux programmers make with software, rather than having to develop its own ecosystem single-handedly, as it has with its older Origin line.

The new systems were on display here at NASA’s Ames Laboratory, which unveiled a new supercomputer called Columbia on Tuesday that can perform 42.7 trillion calculations per second, or 42.7 teraflops. Columbia uses a total of 10,240 Itanium 2 processors in a combination of the old and new Altix 3700 systems.

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“This is one of our earliest installs of that product,” said Jeff Greenwald, senior director of project management and marketing.

The systems will ship with Intel’s newest Itanium 2 processor, a version of the “Madison” generation, and will accommodate the “Montecito” model, due to arrive by the end of 2005, SGI said. The newest Madison model includes 9MB of high-speed cache memory instead of the 6MB of current chips.

The BX2 version of the Altix 3700 packs 64 processors into one 80-inch-tall cabinet, twice as many as its predecessor managed, Greenwald said.

But that higher density means higher heat. SGI will offer an optional water cooling system that chills exhaust air that flows out of the back of each cabinet, Greenwald said.

The Itanium 2 processor, in combination with the Linux operating system, replaces the proprietary MIPS chips and Irix operating system SGI has relied on in the past. And though SGI has suffered financially during Intel’s slower-than expected Itanium delivery, the shift to the new chips has been swift for SGI, according to Chief Executive Bob Bishop.

In the third quarter of 2004, “80 percent of server revenue was Altix, and 20 percent was traditional MIPS-Irix,” he said, and the second quarter marked the first time Altix outsold the earlier Origin line. “We feel pretty good about our Altix business.”

The company has shipped 800 Altix systems with a total of 30,000 processors, Bishop said. Of the 800 systems, 27 have more than 1 terabyte of main memory, and 58 have more than 500 gigabytes, he added.

Still, SGI trails the leaders of the high-performance computing market, No. 1 Hewlett-Packard and No. 2 IBM. But HP and SGI are allies in one way: HP is the co-inventor and an aggressive supporter of the Itanium chips.

The BX2 system can accommodate as much as 8 terabytes of data for each 512-processor machine, compared with 6 terabytes for its predecessor, Greenwald said.

Huge amounts of memory are a hallmark of SGI’s systems. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company uses operating systems adapted with a technology called nonuniform memory access, or NUMA, that lets a single operating system run across hundreds of processors. NUMA lets the software run, even though it can take different amounts of time to read or write data to memory, depending on how far away a memory bank is from the processor that’s using it.

NASA’s Columbia supercomputer uses 20 computers, each with 512 processors. Each computer spans several cabinets connected with fat white “NUMAlink” cables. NASA and SGI also just began testing four of those systems, connected into a 2,048-processor machine.

SGI doubled the bandwidth of the cables from 3.2 gigabytes per second in NUMAlink 3 to 6.4 gigabytes per second in the BX2’s NUMAlink 4, said Dave Parry, senior vice president of SGI’s server and platform group. The change: Data is sent in both directions on each NUMAlink 4 wire instead of the one-way travel used by NUMAlink 3.

Sending data both ways on a single line is tricky, Parry said. To accomplish the task, a processing system must subtract the signal of the data being transmitted, leaving only the signal of the data being received.

The top-end Altix 3700 isn’t the only system being upgraded with Intel’s new processors. The other half of SGI’s product line, the Prism family for data visualization tasks, will be upgraded “almost concurrently” with the 3700, said Paul McNamara, senior vice president of SGI’s visual computing group.

The Prism line is based on SGI’s midrange Altix 350 products.