New Orion workstation puts cluster in a box

Orion Cluster Workstation packs the power of a PC cluster into a desktop-size package

A new company thinks it has the answer to the complaints of scientists and engineers looking for high-performance computing (HPC) on the desktop. The Orion Cluster Workstation packs the power of a PC cluster into a desktop-size package using low-power chips and an innovative motherboard design.

Orion Multisystems Inc. will emerge from stealth mode on Monday with news of its workstation product. The Santa Clara, California, company hopes to bring back the days of the technical workstation, when engineers could have a computer at their desks that was far more advanced than the PCs of the time, said Orion President, Chief Executive Officer, and co-founder Colin Hunter.

In the late 1980s, companies like Sun Microsystems Inc. made their mark with technical workstations that were an intermediate step between the desktop PCs of the day and the mainframes and supercomputers of the day, Hunter said.

The rise of servers and workstations based on Intel Corp.'s chips led to significant declines in the prices of technical workstations, but the performance of those systems have not kept up with the improvements enjoyed by the supercomputing world, Hunter said. A modern supercomputer can run at well over a teraflop (one trillion floating point operations per second) as compared to a technical workstation based on Intel's Xeon processors that is much closer to a PC than a supercomputer in terms of performance, he said.

Scientists looking for pure floating-point performance that don't want to spend millions on a large supercomputer have resorted to clustering technology, Hunter said. Clusters are an inexpensive way of amassing supercomputing power, but they are difficult to maintain and force scientists to coordinate with colleagues to schedule time on the cluster, he said.

The Orion Cluster Workstation simply takes the idea of a cluster and puts it inside a desktop machine. The company's first product, the DT-12, is a 12-node cluster that measures 18.4 inches long by 24 inches wide by 3.8 inches high (46.7cm by 61cm by 9.7cm), about the same as a conventional desktop PC.

But this PC puts out about 18 gigaflops of sustained performance, and 36 gigaflops of peak performance under certain conditions. Transmeta Corp.'s 90-nanometer Efficeon processors are the reason Orion can pack so much performance into a relatively small package, Hunter said. Hunter and Orion Vice President of Engineering Ed Kelly are very familiar with Transmeta's chips, having co-founded that company prior to joining Orion.

The Efficeon processor uses a software-based architecture to execute instructions that would normally be handled by transistors. By using less transistors than a conventional processor, Transmeta can reduce the amount of power consumed by the chip and put it into thermally sensitive places. Transmeta's 90-nanometer Efficeon processor is expected to significantly outperform its 130-nanometer predecessor as well as the company's older Crusoe chip.

Power concerns have become a way of life for the high-performance computing organization, said Horst Simon, director of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and located at the University of California, Berkeley.

Research groups such as Simon's have always sought as much computing power as they could afford. However, at a certain point these organizations are unable to provide enough electricity to run these powerful computers as well as keep them from overheating, he said.

"We've been growing things simply because we did have this sort of power and cooling capability available. Once you're at the level where you can't put more computers in the office, you can't rebuild all the buildings," Simon said.

Power-sensitive workstations such as the DT-12 can be plugged right into a conventional wall outlet, Orion's Hunter said. This means that Simon's group can get the same performance provided by a power-hungry cluster of PCs or workstations from a single unit that draws much less power, he said. The DT-12 consumes less than 200 watts of power.

Companies such as Silicon Graphics Inc., IBM Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., and Sun sell Unix workstations with one or two RISC (reduced instruction set computing) or Itanium 2 processors. Those systems generally use a lot more power that the DT-12 and are about as expensive with less overall computing power inside the box.

One advantage that the RISC and Itanium 2 workstations have over the Orion DT-12 is the ability to run 64-bit applications taking advantage of the vast amounts of memory included with these systems. Orion considered using Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s 64-bit Athlon 64 processor, but it doesn't yet have the power characteristics of Transmeta's chip and Orion's potential customers were more interested in 32-bit applications, Hunter said.

The motherboards used by the Orion workstation were custom-designed by the company. The standard board features 12 nodes on each board, and a 12-port Gigabit Ethernet switch. Each node is comprised of a 1.5GHz Efficeon processor, an Ethernet port, and a DIMM (dual inline memory module) slot.

A base configuration of Orion's DT-12 desktop system comes with 512MB of memory per node and a 160GB hard drive for between $9,000 and $10,000, said Marc Adams, vice president of business development for Orion. Pricing is still being finalized for the DT-12 as well as the deskside versions of the system, he said.

The deskside systems will start at 48-node configurations, and are expandable up to 96 nodes, Adams said. Pricing for those configurations is yet to be determined as the deskside products are not scheduled to ship until later this year, but the 96-node configuration should cost under $100,000, he said.

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