Just another brick in the computer technology wall

High-performance computing and graphics supplier SGI has launched a modular computing system designed to solve the problem of scaling up computing power to meet ever-more demanding project specifications.

The system will allow easy upgrades, by slotting in `bricks’ into a cabinet rack, thus adding new, faster processors as they become available.

The NUMAflex system is based on the existing SGI NUMA technology, but presents it in a new form. `Bricks’ which can contain routers, disk storage, CPU modules, graphics or other elements can be added together in drawer-like stacks within the racks, to create a configuration that suits the user.

New types of bricks can be added to the NUMAflex modular system for specialised configurations (such as broadband data streaming) and new technologies, such as the new IA64 processor, as they enter the market.

Keeping up to speed

The first SGI products to use NUMAflex technology – the Origin 3000 series of servers, and the Onyx 3000 series of visualisation systems – are available now.

John Fleming, SGI marketing manager for northern Europe, says the system `looks more or less like a series of wardrobes’, which is populated from a menu of `bricks’ which supply the mix and quantity of computing power and processing speed.

`It allows us to persuade our customers that this is a way of protecting their investment in a technological world that is changing very fast,’ he says.

Existing clients, including the US Army’s engineering research development centre and the Nasa Ames Research Centre, have ordered or taken delivery. The US Army has ordered a 512 processor supercomputer system, using the Origin 3000 series technology.

Traditionally, users have had to buy a `one-size-fits-all’ solution that can sometimes be too big and expensive for a user’s everyday needs. It can also become obsolete quickly and need to be replaced at a cost of millions of pounds – which often held back progress in sophisticated R&D work.

`It is analogous to when people switched from all-in-one home stereo systems to buying separate components for a home-based theatre,’ said SGI vice-president Jan Silverman. `Before, you had to throw out the whole stereo just because the 8-track died. Now you just add DVD.’

Economies of scale

The entry level price is about £36,000, although the system is available to scale from just two processors through to 512, and up to a terabyte of memory and petabytes of online storage. The price of a 128 processor system would be about £2m.

Users who need an upgrade for a specific part of a project can rent additional processing power.

When the NUMA technology was launched by SGI four years ago, the NUMAflex system of slot-in brick-based computing had been two years in development.

As the product is finally launched, SGI said the next big thing, probably also due in about four years, looks unlikely to depart from this infrastructure.

`The next generation also looks set to involve wardrobes and bricks,’ said Fleming. `I don’t see any discontinuities right now that would mean we have to depart from that configuration.’

All the SGI interconnect is via copper wire. `Down the track, it could be a case for optical fibres,’ he said. `But the same framework would apply. There are no immovable constraints here.’



SGI is smaller than the rest of the big players in the computer business, but in the specific market for high-performance computing, it is one of the big five. Figures from US analyst IDC show that in 1999, market share was being aggressively fought for, with no one company in a dominant position. The NUMAflex system represents SGI’s bid to compete in this market.

{{High-performance technical computing market 1999

Company Share by value Share by volume % %

HP 20.8 19.4Compaq 19.6 16.5SGI 19.3 25.4IBM 16.3 18.6Sun 15.4 19.8

Source: IDC}}

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