As supercomputing market grows, vendors push out-of-box systems

HPC may be fastest-growing IT market

TAMPA, Fla. -- The high-performance computing (HPC) market is growing by more than 9% annually, according to research firm IDC, prompting hardware vendors to give more attention to delivering large, out-of-the-box high-performance clusters.

Sun Microsystems Inc., Silicon Graphics Inc. and Linux Networx Inc., among others, are offering turnkey systems intended to ease and speed up cluster deployment.

This focus on ease of setup and use arrives as IDC forecasts that spending on HPC will rise from more than $10 billion worldwide this year to $14.3 billion by 2010, according to Addison Snell, a research director at IDC. "This has been one of the highest-growing or the highest-growing IT sector," he said.

The HPC International Conference on High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage and Analysis, or SC06, is technically an academic conference. But its expansive trade floor conveys a sense of high stakes for vendors trying to win larger shares of the broadening market. Vendors run large and often elaborate booths with sophisticated systems but promise easy setup as well.

Among the users at the conference was Terry McLaren, a program manager for the cyber environments group at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. McLaren said the out-of-box systems may appeal to novice HPC users or those user communities that don't have long years of experience. They may also have value from an ease-of-use perspective, he added.

But "from a cutting-edge perspective, it's unclear whether or not any in-the-box solutions will maintain speed with the innovations," said McLaren. That's where homegrown users or organizations with expertise will have an advantage.

Roger Smith, senior systems administrator at Mississippi State University's High Performance Computing Collaboratory, recently installed a Sun system with 500 Sun Fire x2200 servers with 1,024 AMD Opteron dual-core processors running Solaris. Smith said the university opted for a prebuilt system developed by Sun Customer Ready Systems' CRS program as part of a joint demonstration project with Sun. The result was an affordable system, he said, without disclosing the price.

The hardware was set up in a day, and the only thing it needed was some networking hookups that weren't ready when the system was delivered, said Smith. His major concern was whether Sun would configure the system exactly as the school wanted it. He visited a Sun facility in Oregon "to assure ourselves that they were going to do a good job ... as we wanted it." The system has been up for two weeks now, and Smith said he's happy with it.

Hewlett-Packard Co. leads the HPC industry, with about 33% of the market, but IBM, at 28%, dominates sales at the high end with large enterprise machines such as its Blue Gene system. In third place is Dell Inc., at 17%, followed by Sun, at about 10%, according to IDC.

In 2000, Unix-based operating systems dominated HPC use; today, the Linux operating system accounts for 65% of the market. But Snell warned that independent software vendors are beginning to feel pressure from users to optimize to one vendor's version of Linux versus another. The irony is that the Linux market is beginning to head in the direction of Unix, with multiple flavors of the operating system, Snell said.

Despite shifting operating systems, the major users of HPC systems remain academics and life sciences, and government laboratories, according to Snell.

One huge government project that vendors expect to be announced at any time is the next phase of a multimillion-dollar supercomputing effort by the Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It is seeking development of a petascale computing system.

In 2003, DARPA selected three vendors -- Cray Inc., IBM and Sun Microsystems -- and divided nearly $146 million among them to develop proposals. The plan was to include a 36-month R&D phase leading to a preliminary design. The next phase will involve picking two vendors to develop a prototype. Selection was due to take place this summer but has not yet occurred.

A DARPA spokesman said that the agency doesn't reveal announcement dates.

In other government awards, IBM today said that it will share the cost of a five-year, $58 million R&D effort to enhance the compute capabilities of its Blue Gene system. The U.S. Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration will contribute $17.5 million each, with IBM adding $23 million.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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