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Vendors Hope Turnkey Systems Fit HPC Users

By Patrick Thibodeau
November 20, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - TAMPA, Fla. -- For many users, building high-performance computing systems has been largely a do-it-yourself operation. But now HPC vendors are paying more attention to delivering out-of-the-box clusters in an effort to encourage wider adoption, especially among new users.

Longtime HPC users said at the SC06 conference here last week that turnkey systems have always been available but that the increasing use of blade servers and other systems that can be easily integrated by vendors is facilitating the out-of-the-box trend.

Sun Microsystems Inc., Silicon Graphics Inc. and Linux Networx Inc. are among the vendors offering turnkey systems. SGI last week said it will ship an integrated system with four quad-core Xeon processors in a single chassis in next year’s first quarter. Linux Networx introduced a series of ready-to-run HPC systems tuned for applications such as computational fluid dynamics and crash and impact analysis.

“From a cutting-edge perspective, it’s unclear whether or not any in-the-box solutions will maintain speed with the innovations,” said Terry McLaren, a program manager for the cyber environments group at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. Nonetheless, the NCSA, which is located at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is evaluating the turnkey systems because of their ease of use, McLaren said.

Roger Smith, a senior systems administrator at Mississippi State University’s High Performance Computing Collaboratory, recently installed a system consisting of 500 Sun Fire x2200 servers equipped with a total of 1,024 Opteron dual-core processors. Smith said the school opted for a prebuilt system developed through Sun’s Customer Ready Systems program as part of a joint demonstration project.

The system was set up three weeks ago in a single day, Smith said. All that had to be added was some networking hookups that weren’t ready when it was delivered. Smith’s major concern was whether Sun would configure the system exactly as the school wanted it, but he said he visited a Sun facility in Oregon “to assure ourselves that they were going to do a good job.”

Hassan Assiri, director of high-performance computing at Seneca College in Toronto, said he expects that turnkey cluster users will have to pay extra for the systems. But, he added, that might make economic sense compared with having to deal with multiple vendors or hire new staffers to do an installation.

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