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.