Cluster technology to accelerate workstation performance

Santa Clara (CA) - Start-up Orion Multisystems believes it has found the key to open a new chapter for workstation technology: The company offers 12 and 96-node cluster workstations in a desktop form factor reaching a performance of up to 300 GFlops - about a third of the entry level spot of the world's 500 fastest supercomputers.

Computer and car enthusiasts are not so different. Both species tend not to be satisfied with the performance their product delivers right from the manufacturer. After market tools such as a dual exhaust for a Honda Civic or a special cooling system for a gaming PC is not quite what many would consider to be exotic. But people, who don't want to deal with shaving off milliseconds from the quarter mile run, but rather choose a Corvette or a Porsche, will soon have a similar choice in the computer market.

Orion Multisystems claims that it will offer the "highest-performance" computers which can be plugged into an ordinary power outlet. In a typical desktop form factor, Orion integrates a 12-node cluster workstation; a "deskside" unit, about the size of a two-drawer filing cabinet, includes 96 processors. Target markets are applications which demand significant computing power in a stand-alone system, such as CAD, medical programs such as tomography, complex simulations such as fluid or molecular dynamics, or multimedia applications and 3D rendering. Orion also said that it is currently evaluating the market potential for a gaming version of its cluster workstation.

Colin Hunter, President and CEO of Orion Multisystems, and former CFO and vice president of software engineering at Transmeta, believes that the cluster workstations can initiate a "re-birth" of the workstation. "The high-performance technical workstation went into a kind of eclipse after the mid-nineties," he said. "The performance you could get out of a workstation was not enough to justify a price higher than that of a PC."

People then concluded that clusters were the best solution for high-performance computing, but noticed at some point, that the utility of a backroom cluster is much worse then they used to get out of their workstations in the mid-eighties, according to Hunter. "These assembled systems make it hard for individuals to make use of it. It is rather a shared source and they have to be scheduled by the IT department."

The new Orion systems are designed to fill a widening gap between PCs and supercomputers and revive the segment of the workstation. The basic recipe is a dense design of mobile components. The 96-node system uses eight boards with twelve nodes each. The boards are connected via a 10gigE switch chip (10 Gbit uplink); the bandwidth between nodes is one Gbit. The processors in the design announced are Transmeta's Efficeon processors (90 nm) which will use clock speeds from 1.5 GHz to 1.6 GHz, "depending on what the company is able to get at production start." According to Hunter, the Efficeon architecture allows Orion to reach a performance of one flop per Watt - more than would be possible with any competing processor. However, depending on customer demand, the company also would use Intel or AMD processors.

Power consumption is rated at about 200 Watts for the 12-node model and about 1500 Watts for the 96-node version. The entry-level system can support up to 24 GByte of DDR SDRAM and 1 TByte of internal disc storage. The larger system boasts those figures to 192 GBytes and 9.6 TBytes, respectively.

The workstations feature a distributed storage system PVFS2 and a cluster video subsystem based on a 10 Gbit per second frame buffer and available output to four DVI displays.

The standard software is based on the Fedora Linux core 2, using Linux Kernel 2.6.6 with Orion-specific extensions, which allows the complete system to boot within 90 seconds, Hunter said. Further software includes development tools, libraries, as well as monitoring and control software. Multi processing is enabled through the standardized Message Passage Interface 2 (MPI 2) library, which creates a standard cluster for programs. The operating system environment is based on Linux right out of the box, but the x86-architecture also allows any other respective environment, such as Windows SMP.

Orion did not publish any common benchmark results as performance guidelines, but mentioned that its smaller desktop system will reach a peak performance of 36 GFlops (18 GFlops sustained) and that its larger deskside system will peak at 300 GFlops (150 GFlops sustained). Within one year, Hunter expects the density and performance of the systems to double. To put the performance into perspective, a view into the list of the worlds 500 fastest computers reveals that the 96-node system is fast enough to claim the top spot in the 1994 listing. It would have been number 50 in 1999, number 150 in 2001 and currently reaches about one third of the performance of the entry-level spot of the most recent listing.

In case you are already reaching for your credit card to order such a system, be advised that just as Corvettes and Porsches might be a bit pricier than an after market tuned Civic, these Orion clusters will put a dent in your budget. Orion did not mention exact pricing of its systems so far, but said that the 12-node workstation will be available for "under $10,000" and the 96-node model for "under $100,000". Compared to a multi-million Dollar price tag of a supercomputer however, Orion's systems will be a bargain for the scientific markets it aims for.

In fact, it appears that Orion's systems could be a slam dunk in certain markets which are waiting for an extremely powerful standalone system. Hunter estimates the market volume for such workstations at about $2.2 billion with machines in the range from $10,000 to $100,000 accounting for about 77 percent of that segment.

But before Orion can conquer this market, it will have to succeed in marketing and advertising its product to generate interest from IT managers - which in the end will have to be convinced that Orion's machines will be as reliable as they are fast. Especially corporate markets are known for avoiding risks they cannot calculate - which is the case with a new company such as Orion. Usually, reliability is more important than speed. Ed Kelly, vice president of engineering at Orion Multisystems, and former CTO at Transmeta, stated that Orion is using standard equipment and has engaged in "exhaustive testing" and that the systems will deliver the reliability the target markets call for.