Iris. Indigo. Indy. Octane. O2. Crimson. All SGI machines that I had on (or under) my desk back when I used to do real work. They were the best graphics machines money could buy in the day and they are still strong brands today, decades after their introduction.
All of which goes a long way to explain why the new SGI has dipped into its brand archive for the positioning of its latest box, the Octane III, announced today. Interestingly, although the machine borrows a name from the past, it is a project that was not under consideration until after the merger. But other than sharing (roughly) the same space under a researcher’s desktop, today’s Octane has little in common with its namesake from the past.
SGI is positioning the Octane III as the first step up from the desktop. It can be configured with up to 80 Intel Nehalem cores, and SGI sees it as a complement to the CloudRack X2 announced in August (SGI’s “scalable workgroup cluster”) and capable of holding up to 144 Nehalem cores in an enclosure. I think the new machine actually slices the bottom end of the HPC market pretty thin. The top end of the Octane isn’t that far from the top end of the Cloud Rack X2, and when you buy an Octane it comes with all the power supplies and distribution you’d need to fully populate it with all 10 nodes (in a compute configuration, but more on that in a minute). I think it probably would have made more sense to focus on a machine with a smaller top end, and reduce the entry price, to create a solid differentiation with SGI’s other offerings.
In fact, this machine points to a bothersome trend with the new SGI: rather than retreating into a very few solid market positions where they can truly excel, they are multiplying product portfolios and roadmaps, adding complexity that the company isn’t well positioned financially to support. But, as I’ve said many times in this town before, I don’t run a multinational technology company.
Back to the new Octane. Although this system doesn’t (for example) share trays with the CloudRack, SGI has continued some of the system engineering practices it is using in its other solutions. For example, there are no power supplies or fans on the trays. The power and cooling infrastructure comes in the chassis, and in the default configuration chassis will ship to users with all the infrastructure needed to fully populate the box with processors, which should make upgrading easier (although it will nominally increase the entry price). The box is a pedestal form factor with a 1’x2′ footprint. The total power required varies with the configuration, but even at the high end it is designed to be plugged into the wall with either 1 or 2 120V circuits or a 20A, 208V circuit. SGI also says the system is “whisper quiet,” which ought to keep your cubicle mate from mounting an all-out offensive after you get it installed.
The Octane III comes in compute or graphics configurations, and you can get yours preconfigured with Red Hat or SUSE Linux (and SGI’s Industrial Strength Linux kit), or with Windows Server or HPC Server. In the compute configuration you have your choice of up to 10 horizontally-mounted trays fitted with dual-socket, quad core Nehalems (80 cores max), single-socket, quad core 3400 Xeons (40 cores max), or 19 single-socket, dual core Intel Atoms (38 cores max) [updated to reflect correct Atom numbers]. Each Nehalem tray will support up to 96GB of RAM, for a total of nearly a terabyte of RAM in the whole box (note that this memory is not shared between nodes — it isn’t a baby UltraViolet — and SGI wasn’t talking about support for any software-supported shared memory at launch). You can configure the nodes with either 1 Gb Ethernet or your choice of DDR or QDR InfiniBand. The interconnect uses QSFP cables that stay inside the chassis to minimize clutter. The graphics configuration lets you slot a single dual-socket, quad core Xeon 5400 (Nehalem) into the chassis with your choice of NVIDIA Quadro FX1800, FX3800, FX4800, FX5800 cards or the Tesla C1060. Note that in this configuration the motherboard mounts vertically to accommodate the high profile of the graphics cards, so you can only get one in a system.
Perhaps even more so than with the CloudRack X2, the Octane III is a box that is going to have to ship in volume to make money. SGI’s Geoffrey Noer, senior director of product marketing at SGI, says that the company will move the product through channel and ISV partnerships. While SGI wasn’t talking about any partnerships during my interview with them, this is the same kind of model that Cray is using to hawk its CX-1 line. While Cray seems to have a fairly developed channel now, it did take some time after launch for that to be developed.
What about pricing? Noerr says that pricing starts at $7,995 for one Nehalem node (8 cores) and the integrated GbE, and goes up to $53,000 for a version with ten dual-socket Intel Xeon L5520 processor nodes (80 cores), 240GB of memory (24GB/node) and integrated GigE networking. Maxing out the memory or upgrading to IB will set you back even more.