Desktop Supercomputer from SiCortex

There are many people who dream of desktop supercomputes (I know I'm one of them). I had high hopes for Orion Multisystems, but they suffered from some problems. I then had high hopes for Tyan with PSC, but they seems to have faltered. Now it seems that SiCortex is making a run at the desktop supercomputer market.

Read on to learn more about the new system from SiCortex and some observations and opinions I have on it.

SiCortex Background

SiCortex, who has been developing a new class of supercomputes using low-power processors with a very, very high performance network, announced their new desktop system, called Catapult, that uses the same technology.

The basic technology is a low-power version of the MIPS chip (64-bit version) that uses about 3.5 watts of power per core. Then they combined 6 cores in a a single chip. Then they combine 27 chips into a single board. Their larger machines then use a number of these boards to create the entire machine using a very high speed network. For example, the largest box put together 36 boards for a total of 5,832 cores (the SC5832). The SC5832 uses about 20 KW which works out to about 3.5 Watts per core. Each core also can produce about 1 GFLOPS. So 5,832 cores will get you 5,832 GFLOPS of theoretical performance.

SiCortex announced their systems last year and have started to ship systems in 2007. They offer the SC5832 as well as a smaller model, the SC648, that has 648 cores on board. Now, SiCorex has taken the basics of these systems to produce the SC072, called Catapult.

SC072 Catapult

The SC072 has a total of 72 of the low-power MIPS chips in a deskside unit that looks to be about the same size as a larger PC case. They have also put an Opteron node in the case. While it wasn't specified, presumably this is used as a "head node" in the box. So it is used to interact with the user and to compile codes, etc. (compiling for the MIPS chip on an Opteron is probably not too easy, but since SiCortex bought the Pathscale compiler product and team, they have probably developed a reasonable cross-compiler.)

The system can also contain up to 48GB of memory, 3 PCI-e slots, and presumably some local storage. The entire system uses less than 200W of power and starts at about $15,000. With the 72 cores, the system has a theoretical peak performance of 72 GFLOPS.

Observations and Comments

Let me start by saying that I wish SiCortex the best of luck and I truly appreciate companies that are pushing desktop supercomputers. They took a good idea of a low-power CPU and applied it to the desktop. Let's look a little closer at the SC072.

One of the smartest things SiCortex did was to put the Opteron in the box, presumably as the head node. One of the problems that Orion Multisystem faced was that while they had a number of low power CPUs in the system (Transmeta CPUs), the performance of a single CPU was too low to be adequate for a head node. In other words, it wasn't altogether useful to have such a lower performance chip that ran the graphics and pre-processing and post-processing tasks. But the Opteron in the SC072 is definitely capable of running graphic intensive codes (visualization) as well as pre-processing and post-processing tasks. Plus I'm assuming that SiCortex has a cross-compiler on this head node to build code to run on the MIPS chips.

Also, SiCortex has put a large number of cores inside a single box with the ability to plug it into a standard 110V wall socket. So you definitely have a number of cores to use to run codes. The overall theoretical performance of the system is 72 GFLOPS. Not too shabby. But, let's look at some competitive systems.

A 3.0 GHz quad-core Intel Xeon has a theoretical performance of about 48 GFLOPS per socket (12 GFLOPS per code). So a single quad-core Xeon is a little more than half the performance of the entire SC072. You can easily run a dual-socket quad-core Xeon system in a single wall socket, producing a theoretical performance of 96 GFLOPS (a bit more than the SC072). So while the SC072 has more cores, the dual-socket, quad-core Xeon has more processing power.

To be honest I haven't priced out a dual-socket quad-core Xeon system, but I would think you could get one with 48GB of memory for less than $15,000. But if anyone has real numbers, I would greatly appreciate it.

So, while I would love to say that the ultimate desktop supercomputer had been found (even though I can't afford it), I don't think the SC07 is it. It's defintely a step in the right direction and you can get lots of cores in a single box (pretty cool in and of itself). But you can beat the performance with a simple dual-socket, quad-core Xeon box that might be cheaper.

However, keep you eyes pealed for future systems. I feel in my bones there are people working on desktop supercomputers that will actually be inexpensive and of very high performance.

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