Cray sells new XD1 to Forest Service

The Agriculture Department's Forest Service will be one of the early adopters of Cray Inc.'s new Linux machines.

Officials at Cray Inc., a supercomputer manufacturer, introduced earlier this week the XD1 Linux-based supercomputer. Starting at less than $100,000, the XD1 is a less expensive alternative to the company's traditional supercomputers, and it is designed to outperform Linux clusters built using generic off-the-shelf parts that are increasingly popular with government high-performance computing shops.

The Forest Service is among the first customers for the XD1, and officials there will use the computer to predict and track the paths of smoke plumes from forest fires, according to the agency officials.

"Tracking the evolving chemical composition of [a] plume produces a task so computationally intense that we assumed we would not be able to afford any computer capable of performing it," said Bryce Nordgren, a physical scientist at the Forest Service's Fire Science Lab. "Reviewing the test case results from Cray restored our hope that we would be able to perform a scientifically meaningful simulation on our budget."

Financial terms of the Forest Service sale were not disclosed. The agency joins the Ohio Supercomputer Center and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory as early users of the XD1 system.

Like some other high-performance Linux clusters, the Cray XD1 uses Opteron processors built by chip manufacturer Advanced Micro Devices Inc. However, the XD1 uses a number of proprietary technologies designed to enhance the overall performance of the multiprocessor computer.

Cray acquired much of this technology, such as the Direct Connected Processor (DCP) architecture, when it bought a British Columbia-based company called OctigaBay Systems Corp. in April.

DCP architecture directly links processors to one another and system memory, eliminating interconnect bottlenecks and providing 30 times greater bandwidth and 30 times lower latency than typical Linux cluster systems built using off-the-shelf processors and interconnects, Cray officials said.

"Cluster computers are general-purpose business machines, Web servers or database servers re-purposed in the high performance computing world," said Adam Lorant, vice president of marketing at Cray. These clusters perform fine when running business-oriented applications that use small message or data set sizes, but they hit a bottleneck when working with the larger message sizes found in typical high-performance computing applications, he said.

The XD1 can run any of a wide variety of commercial and open-source x86 Linux applications that use the Message Passing Interface programming model, a common standard in the high-performance computing field.

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