Transmeta's low power finds place in supercomputers

Scientists are combining blade servers based on Transmeta processors and Linux Beowulf clustering to drastically cut the cost of supercomputing

Troubled chip company Transmeta got a boost on Friday when the Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL) showed off Green Destiny, a new supercomputer architecture based on Transmeta's Crusoe processor.

Present were Linus Torvalds, progenitor of the Linux operating system, and Gordon Bell, inventor of the minicomputer. The supercomputer will be used for big, massively parallel mathematical models of physical systems, from the galactic to the subatomic.

LANL says that the new server design, based on a very dense configuration of Crusoe-based blade servers running Linux Beowulf clustering software, has a total cost of ownership two-thirds less than comparable Intel or AMD systems. In particular, high reliability and very low power consumption dramatically reduces system administration, location and electricity costs. Green Destiny's own destiny is a small patch in a hot, dusty warehouse instead of the air-conditioned splendour granted its predecessors

Each Crusoe chip takes under a watt when idle or six watts at full tilt; a Pentium 4 takes 75 watts and an IA-64 chip can do nearly twice that. As a result, Intel-based systems need lots of power both to do the calculations and to run forced cooling; the Crusoe systems need no cooling. The difference is architectural -- Crusoe translates Intel instructions to its own native, low-power very long word instruction set (VLIW) before running them, which needs only a quarter of the transistor count of the chips it emulates.

Green Destiny has 240 processors configured as ten sets of 24 blades each, each blade having one 633MHz TM5600 processor, 256MB of memory, 10GB of hard disk and three 100-megabits per second Ethernet interfaces. One set of 24 blades fits into a single 3U 19-inch rack-mounted chassis, 5.25-inches tall: the whole cluster, including dual 450W power supplies and networking, stands some six feet high. The blades are built by RLX Technologies, and have their own bus system.

According to the labs, the 24-blade forerunner to Green Destiny, Metablade, took just two hours to configure and get running and in nine months of use had no hardware or software failures -- resulting in a total administrative cost for a projected four-year lifetime of $800. Based on the lab's previous experience, the same cost for a traditional Beowulf cluster would be nearer $60,000. With the labs' own benchmarks showing the performance of a bladed Crusoe cluster at 75 percent of that of the equivalent Intel or AMD system, the researchers reckon that performance per dollar of Metablade was roughly twice that of the competition.

Other companies are known to be examining Beowulf software in combination with blade servers, most notably HP -- although how the project is doing in the post-merger company is yet to be determined.

See the Hardware News Section for the latest update on everything from MP3 players and PDAs to supercomputing.

Have your say instantly, and see what others have said. Go to the ZDNet news forum.

Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom.