SiCortex sells three machines: a desktop computer with 72 processors, a mid-range system with 1,458 processors, and the biggest of all, a 5,832-processor system that costs more than $1 million and delivers speeds of eight teraflops, which means it can perform 8 trillion calculations per second. The fastest supercomputer in the world, an IBM machine based at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, performs more than 1,000 trillion calculations per second.
But SiCortex isn't aiming to build the fastest supercomputer in the world, or even the most reliable. The markets the company targets — small enterprises, collaborative groups, university departments and divisions within national labs — won't spend enough to get five nines of availability, says SiCortex CTO John Goodhue.
For its processors, SiCortex purchased intellectual property from several sources including the company MIPS Technologies, and modified the design to suit its own needs. The Linux-based machines use a network of Leonard's design.
"In an Ethernet or Infiniband environment, you have processing nodes and you have separate switches. That's called an indirect network," Leonard says. "Ours is a direct network in which each component of the system includes a small portion of the switch fabric and you wire them together so you don't need a separate component to do the fabric switching."
An individual processor can be very fast, but isn't worth much in a cluster if the entire system has slow communication, Reilly says.
"If you're going to scale up to hundreds of thousands of processors you have to get the communication bottleneck out of the way or at least you have to mitigate it," Reilly says. "So we start with a relatively modest processor and connect it to a really fabulous communications network."
SiCortex has sold about 60 computers, which are named for the number of processors (for instance, SC072, SC1458 and SC5832). Inside the roughly 6-foot-tall 5832 are as many as 36 motherboards, each of which has 162 processors. Nine of the motherboards fit into the 1458, which costs several hundred thousand dollars depending on the configuration, while the 72-processor desktop uses a smaller version of the SiCortex motherboard.
The desktop by itself costs about $25,000, but organizations that buy the larger systems get a couple free.
Purdue University, among SiCortex's earliest customers, purchased the 5832 and has outfitted it with 4,536 processors so far. Purdue CIO Gerry McCartney is impressed by the vendor's ability to provide massive computational power at a low cost, but notes that it can't be used in all high-performance computing environments.
Rather than provide ultra-fast processors, SiCortex takes inexpensive, slow processors and gives you a ton of them stitched together with very fast interconnect technology, McCartney says.
"Here's the difficulty: Which is better, a motor coach that can hold 50 people, 10 Chevettes that can hold 50 people, or 50 Ferraris that can move 50 people? [SiCortex] is the Chevette model," he says.