August 29, 2004 9:00 PM PDT

A renaissance for the workstation?

Call it a cluster in a cubicle.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based 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.

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The idea is to spark a renaissance in workstations, the engineering computers that have lost much of their identity with the advent of the desktop computer, said founder Colin Hunter.

"We're trying to bring back a category that went into eclipse in the 1990s," he said.

Ten to 15 years ago, one- and two-processor workstations from SGI and Intergraph defined the state of the art in computing. Oil and gas explorers, as well as the artists behind such films as "Jurassic Park," regularly plunked down five-figure sums for these computers.

But SGI's contributions to "Jurassic" proved prophetic. In 1996, Compaq Computer and others began to produce cheaper workstations based on Intel chips that were only slightly more powerful than regular desktops. They soon took over the jungle.

"Intel advanced the state of the art much faster than the SGI or Sun guys," Hunter said.

At the same time, however, clusters began to grow in popularity. As a result, a growing percentage of computing work gets done in the back room. That can create problems with office space and power delivery, a problem similar to one that other companies are trying to tackle with blade servers and blade desktops.

"We can't have computers in racks all over the place," said Horst Simon, director of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which will conduct a trial with Orion's workstations in the near future. "The gap has widened because nobody has tackled the problem of putting the performance gains on the desktop."

So who needs 96 processors? Animators for one, Hunter said. Currently, animators design characters and scenes on their personal desktops and then polish their work on clusters of servers lashed together in a rendering farm. This process, however, ties up the equipment that's most expensive--and most in demand by others. More desktop power will permit artists to tinker with lighting and shading before tying up the corporate server bank.

"We don't replace render farms or back rooms. We just make them more efficient," Hunter said. "What we face now is a performance gap between what you can get out of a PC and what you get out of a cluster."

Orion's target markets include the movie, engineering and life sciences industries. Systems integrator The BioTeam will sell a turnkey version of the 12-processor workstation that will contain over 200 applications targeted for biological and pharmaceutical researchers.

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.

The systems come with Fedora Linux version 2.6.6.

Banking on Transmeta
Orion's first computers rely on the Efficeon processor from Transmeta. Transmeta has suffered from several delays, and the company recently admitted--after first denying--that it will not ship as many Efficeon chips as originally planned this year.

Sales of Transmeta chips have also barely made a dent in the market since a promising start with some notable early design wins in 2000. Still, Hunter, who helped found Transmeta, said that the chips consume less power than standard x86 chips, which makes it easier to insert more processors into a confined space.

Orion is also looking at ways to explore using other types of processors in its boxes, although that may require ramping down the speed or inserting fewer processors, he added.

Hunter also helped found OQO, which has developed a handheld Windows XP computer. OQO is expected to come out with its first units later this year.

Orion's desktop model with 12 processors will cost under $10,000 and come out on Oct. 1. The deskside model will come in at under $100,000 and will be available in the fourth quarter.

The contract manufacturer Flextronics is serving as Orion's manufacturer. Venture backers like Battery Ventures have invested $12 million in total in Orion so far.

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96 processors? Good lord!
I bet it can run Linux.
Posted by Streeks (5 comments )
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