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8/30/2004
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Startup Fits 12-Node Linux Cluster On Desktop Board

Orion Multisystems will offer a design that shrinks a 12-node Linux cluster to a single large motherboard.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. " Startup Orion Multisystems Inc. hopes to revive the workstation market with a design that shrinks a 12-node Linux cluster to a single large motherboard. The company is targeting vertical markets with a desktop that sells for less than $10,000 and a 96-node desk-side system priced under $100,000.

Orion leveraged the de facto cluster standard of X86 nodes linked over Gigabit Ethernet interconnects running Linux with Message Passing Interface (MPI) software libraries. The result is a single system that avoids the complexities of configuring a cluster of off-the-shelf PCs that may use different chip sets, hard drives or BIOS versions.

"The subtle changes [in PC configurations] can make a big difference in whether things work or not. We are turning clusters into an engineered system instead of an assemblage of pieces," said Colin Hunter, chief executive of Orion Microsystems.

Orion intends for its systems to be not only easier to set up than conventional clusters but also more focused on the needs of individual technical users.

"We are not trying to compete with clusters, just offering a more efficient way for some people to use them," said Hunter. "I don't expect render farms to go away, but I do want to give people doing graphic animations, for instance, an easier way to handle them."

In Orion's view the technical workstation died because "its performance did not keep up with the PC," Hunter said. "It became clear that by focusing on parallelism and performance per watt, we could resurrect the workstation market."

Both Hunter and Ed Kelly, Orion's co-founder and now its vice president of technology, were also co-founders of Transmeta Corp., whose low-power Efficeon processors form the heart of Orion's first-generation systems. But next-generation systems will use whatever X86 CPUs provide the best Mips/watt ratio, Hunter said.

On one motherboard, Orion packs a dozen Efficeon nodes, each about the size of a deck of cards. Each node comprises an ALi Corp. chip set, Intel Corp. Gigabit Ethernet chip, 2.5-inch hard drive and DIMM slot that supports up to 2 Gbytes of RAM.

The nodes are linked via Gigabit Ethernet signals run over low-voltage differential-signaling links to a 12-port Broadcom Corp. Gigabit Ethernet switch. The switch sports a single 10-Gbit Xaui connection that forms the fabric that links up to eight of the 12-node boards in the desk-side system. The 10-Gbit connection supports a fast video frame buffer and other I/O boards.

The first version of the system ships with Fedora 2.0 Linux and MPI, and file systems software developed by Argonne National Laboratory. Latency for the system will be less than 40 microseconds, far above the single-digit figures for clusters using the more expensive Myrinet or Quadrics interconnects.

A second iteration will use a custom TCP/IP stack now in development at Orion that will cut latency down to about 15 s, said Kelly.

Orion has partnered with BioTeam Inc. to preinstall Inquiry biotech software on the systems. Biotech "is where most of the growth will come from," Hunter said.

Wolfram Research Inc. is also making its Mathmatica application available on the systems.

"Anything that will work on an X86 cluster will run on this, Hunter said, although for many apps "there will be a transition process" that could involve retooling source code.

Hunter hired a former Dell supply chain manager to develop a built-to-order capability for the Orion systems. Desktop units are now in beta sites, and first production shipments are slated for Oct. 1.

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