Cluster Clamor

As Microsoft takes aim at HPC clusters, NAS vendors turbocharge their offerings

November 15, 2005

4 Min Read
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Clusters are taking center stage in the news this week, as Microsoft plans an announcement tomorrow, and NAS vendors Isilon, OnStor, and Panasas today disclosed new products.

Microsoft CEO Bill Gates is expected to play up Windowss role in large computer clusters in his Supercomputing 2005 keynote Tuesday in Seattle. And Microsoft will unveil "Beta 2" of its Compute Clusters Server (CCS) 2003 in an effort to demonstrate easier-to-implement high-performance clusters in Windows.

Until now, Unix and Linux have been the major operating systems of choice for clustered computing. Microsoft hopes to counter that by tweaking Windows CCS with cluster job scheduling, increased InfiniBand support, and a Microsoft Message Passing Interface (MPI) compatible with the Linux MPI.

We won’t know for yet how successful Microsoft may be in its clustering initiative. Windows CCS won’t be available until the first half of next year.

Meanwhile, Isilon, OnStor, and Panasas are looking to build on inroads they've already made with clustering in the competitive NAS space. At this week's conference, Isilon is unveiling an accelerator node for its clustered storage systems, OnStor is rolling out a new NAS gateway with improved clustered performance, and Panasas is adding blades for its ActiveScale Storage Cluster (See Isilon Intros IQ Accelerator.)Isilon’s IQ Accelerator is a device aimed at improving the performance of its other products. It looks like Isilon IQ nodes, except the accelerator nodes have no disk, and their function is to accelerate performance on the disk-based nodes -- for systems that don't require extra capacity, that is. (See Isilon Shows Off Its IQ .) IQ Acclerator is scheduled to ship in the first quarter of 2006.

OnStor calls its Bobcat 2280 a streaming media server. The vendor claims it is optimized for high-performance computing verticals that deal with large files, such as life sciences, medical imaging, and content delivery. The new Bobcat is different from OnStor’s previous gateways because it has an extra accelerator chip, called a FastPath processor, placed between a front-end storage processor and a back-end file processor. (See ONStor Hits NAS Gas.) OnStor claims the third processor makes the system 40 percent faster.

One customer claims even better performance gains. John Welter, VP of operations for North West Geomatics, says he’s running a four-way cluster with Bobcat 2260 gateways. He recently added two 2280s for testing. (See North West Geomatics Selects ONStor.)

“We deal with huge image files, two to three gigabytes in size,” he says. “We’re seeing close to a 50 percent increase in speed. With clustering, performance is very important.”

Welter says he originally chose OnStor over Isilon because OnStor connects to any vendor’s SAN, while Isilon only works with its own storage.Then again, Isilon has one thing ONStor doesn’t offer yet -- InfiniBand connectivity to speed performance. (See WilTel Wins $35M Contract.)

Another customer who emphasizes performance overlooksn chose Isilon’s hardware lock-in because of the specialized work he does. Parag Mallick, director of proteomics at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center, plans to add an IQ Accelerator node to his Isilon systems.

Proteomics consists of studying protein in a person’s blood to determine if that person has a disease. Mallick says each drop of blood he analyzes represents 50 Gbytes of data and his work generates more than 1 Tbyte a day.

“When you do pattern discovery, you want to pull all the data you’ve analyzed quickly,” Mallick says. "There are lots and lots of reads required over your entire cluster. One of the advantages of clustered computing is having multiple read heads.”

North West uses Linux and Cedars Sinai uses Linux and Solaris Unix for most of their computing. North West’s Welter says that could change after Microsoft gets CCS out. He compares it to Microsoft’s foray into IP SANs with its iSCSI software initiator a few years back. (See Microsoft Delivers iSCSI for Windows.)“Microsoft’s adding clustering capabilities that have been available on Linux,” Welter says. “For instance, we have one application that runs on Windows and we’re forced to run Gigabit Ethernet, while on Linux you can run InfiniBand or whatever you want. This is like iSCSI. You could do iSCSI on Windows before Microsoft came out with its initiator, but it was ugly.”

Panasas’ system is built primarily for Linux clusters, although it does support Unix NFS and Windows’ CIFS protocols through a gateway between its storage blades and the NFS or CIFS clients. Its new StorageBlades hold 8 TBytes of capacity per 4U shelf and up to 80 TBytes per cabinet. Customers can cluster cabinets.

— Dave Raffo, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

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