Dell Installs Big Cluster of Servers, Looks at Web Sales

Online ordering of supercomputer-class systems envisioned, but plans aren't set

Dell Computer Corp. last week announced the installation of the second-largest server cluster sold to date under a high-performance computing initiative it launched in February. And Dell executives said users will eventually be able to order such systems via the company's Web site.

The Linux-based cluster bought for the State University of New York's Buffalo campus includes about 2,000 of Dell's PowerEdge servers, with a combined total of more than 4,000 Intel processors. The system, valued at $13 million to $14 million, is supported by a storage-area network with more than 16TB of disk storage.

The clustered supercomputer can process up to 5.7 trillion floating-point operations per second and was designed for use in bioinformatics research at the Buffalo campus, including an analysis of what the proteins in different parts of the human genome do.

Thus far, the system installed at the school—known officially as the University at Buffalo—is surpassed only by a cluster that Dell sold to Paris-based Compagnie Generale de Geophysique for analyzing seismic data as part of oil exploration activities . That cluster was recently updated to include 4,096 processors, Dell said.

A Stretch for Dell?

Such high-performance clusters are seemingly far removed from the desktops, laptops and low-end servers for which Dell is best known. But Reza Rooholamini, Dell's director of operating systems and clusters, said the day will come when the server clusters can be ordered via the Web.

Rooholamini didn't say when that is likely to happen and conceded that a cluster "is more complex from an ordering standpoint than a notebook PC." But, he said, "it basically uses the same piece parts as our servers. We are just taking these parts and building blocks and connecting them into a supercomputer."

Michael Dell, the company's chairman and CEO, made a similar point during an interview last month . He said he doesn't view the clusters as being much different from other products. "All technology over time commoditizes at its simplest level," Dell said.

Mark Melenovsky, an analyst at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC, called the sale of large-scale cluster computers "the only bright spot in the server market" this year. IDC reported two weeks ago that total worldwide server sales fell by 17% year to year in the second quarter. But Melenovsky said he has seen a boom in the sale of large clusters with hundreds or thousands of nodes.

Nonetheless, he added that it's "a bit of a stretch" for Dell to believe it can take its build-to-order model to the supercomputer level. Melenovsky instead predicted the growth of a boutique services industry to help users handle the complex ordering and installation of large clusters.

A spokeswoman for Dell wouldn't specify how many large clusters the company has sold this year. But she said Dell has installed "hundreds of clusters" altogether, including at least 16 systems that each have more than 100 server nodes.

Jeffrey Skolnick, director of the Buffalo Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics at the university, said his team of researchers will use the cluster installed on the Buffalo campus to conduct research work that could eventually lead to the development of drugs for combating cancer, Alzheimer's disease and AIDS.


Big Cluster On Campus

The Dell server cluster installed by the University at Buffalo includes the following technologies:

More than 2,000 Dell PowerEdge 2650 and PowerEdge 1650 servers, equipped with more than 4,000 Intel chips

Red Hat’s Linux and Platform Computing’s LSF 5 cluster workload management software

A 16TB storage-area network built around EMC storage devices and Extreme Networks’ BlackDiamond I/O switches

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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