Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends
How new technologies are modifying our way of life

lundi 30 août 2004

A small Santa Clara-based company, Orion Multisystems, today unveils a new concept in computing, 'cluster workstations.' In October, you'll be able to choose between a 12-processor unit for less than $10,000 and a 96-processor system for less than $100,000. These new systems are powered by Efficeon processors from Transmeta and are running Fedora Linux version 2.6.6. Apparently, this new company has friends in the industry. You already can read articles in CNET ("A renaissance for the workstation?"), the New York Times ("A PC That Packs Real Power, and All Just for Me," free registration, permanent link) and the Wall Street Journal ("Orion Sees Gold in Moribund Workstations," paid registration). The company is targeting engineers, life scientists and movie animators. It's too early to know if the company can be successful, but I would certainly like to get one of these systems under my desk. More...

Let's start with short excepts from the Wall Street Journal.

Orion's machines are designed like supercomputer clusters, which use many electronic brains to gang-tackle tough problems. Instead of one or two microprocessors, like today's PCs and the workstations of yore, a $10,000 desktop system from Orion has a dozen chips. The fastest version, which fits in a small cabinet under a desk, has 96 of them and costs nearly $100,000.

Who will use such systems?

Orion, a 45-employee company in Sunnyvale, Calif., has set its sights on engineers and scientists that already use clustered systems for jobs such as sequencing genes, studying how wind flows past a car body or creating animated film clips. Such techies often must queue up to get their jobs executed on clustered machines, which may be special-purpose supercomputers containing hundreds or thousands of processors or simply groups of PCs yoked together to work cooperatively.

Why Orion decided to use processors from Transmeta? First, Orion's co-founders Colin Hunter and Ed Kelly helped start chip maker Transmeta Corp. But this is not the only reason.

In searching for a microprocessor for their machine Orion's founders went for the fastest chip they could find that would draw no more than eight watts of power. Why? Lower-watt chips, as with lower-watt light bulbs, put off less heat, and heat and the damage it can cause has long been a problem in packing more power into computers. (By comparison, Intel Corp.'s fastest chip for desktop computers runs at 103 watts). They chose Transmeta's Efficeon, which was designed for portable computers, but Mr. Hunter expects similar low-watt chips from Intel or Advanced Micro Devices Inc. may be used in the future.

The New York Times adds that the 96-processor unit needs about 1,500 watts. It also writes that the company has attracted both interest and skepticism.

"I'm quite intrigued," said Horst D. Simon, director of the National Energy Research Scientific Computer Center at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "Orion fills a performance gap between the desktop and departmental computer."

Orion hopes to break into a technical computing market estimated at $2.2 billion annually.

Some researchers in the field believe that it will be difficult for Orion to find a toehold, and they greeted the concept of placing the cluster on the desktop for a single worker skeptically.

Still, focusing on both performance and low power consumption is a good idea.

"This is a new era," said John Mashey, a computer industry consultant who has worked as a computer designer at both Mips Inc., a semiconductor design firm, and Silicon Graphics. "Now the issue of power consumption is a lot more important than it used to be."

CNET gives more physical details about the systems.

Orion Multisystems has come up with a new type of workstation that can hold several processors clustered together for greater power. A 96-processor unit with 192GB of memory measures 27 inches high, small enough to fit under or even on someone's desk. The company also produces a smaller unit with 12 processors, 24GB of memory and 1.4 terabytes of disk space. This model is just 2 feet wide and 4 inches high.
All 12 of the chips in the smaller Orion workstation are mounted on a single board. Each connects a portion of the computer's memory. Hard drives are also attached to individual processors. The 96-processor computer consists of eight of these boards stacked vertically. Chips on the same board communicate using Gigabit Ethernet, while board-to-board communication takes place on 10 Gigabit Ethernet.

What kind of software is available for such cluster workstations? The Wall Street Journal has some clues.

Competitors note that Orion will have to persuade programmers to tailor existing software to effectively exploit clusters. "That will be one of the challenges for Orion," says John Fowler, an executive vice president at Sun Microsystems Inc., a workstation pioneer whose desktop machines now often cost less than $5,000.
Mr. Hunter says useful software for Orion's machines is more readily available than people realize, as the Linux operating system and other pieces of standard software plumbing have evolved for supercomputing clusters. The Orion founders have close links to the Linux community; Linux developer Linus Torvalds worked for Mr. Hunter while both were at Transmeta.
A number of programs used by scientists, such as Mathematica by Wolfram Research Inc., now come in versions that can assign jobs to be handled by multiple processors. "The most appealing feature of Orion is that it's compatible with existing software," says Peter Overmann, Wolfram's director of software technology.

So, will the company be succesful or not? I think the concept and the prices are are attractive. Here is the conclusion from the New York Times.

Ultimately, Orion may rise or fall based on price, said Addison Snell, a technical computing analyst at International Data Corporation.
"There are probably plenty of engineers in the world who would love to have their own cluster so they don't have to wait for the machines in the lab," said Mr. Snell.

And you, would you buy one of these small but powerful systems? Put your comments below.

Sources: Orion Multisystems Press Release, August 30, 2004; Michael Kanellos, CNET, August 29, 2004; John Markoff, The New York Times, August 30, 2004

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