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Computers with car batteries

It may surprise people who have only recently heard of Kognitio, that besides developing in-memory, scale-out data analytics software, we (then called Whitecross) used to design and build super-computers. And, to solve any bafflement over the name of this blog, yes early versions did contain sets of what were effectively lead, acid car batteries. They were needed to allow these monster machines to shut-down cleanly in the event of a power failure. They also made working on these machines, even when powered off, quite interesting! Our Chief Hardware Engineer once turned a large screwdriver to molten metal when working on a system that had been off for weeks. The accompanying flash and bang were spectacular. You don’t get that excitement when taking the cover of a Proliant server!

Sadly in 2003 we took the decision to stop developing our own hardware platforms, switching instead to industry standard servers and focusing all our development effort on our MPP in-memory database software. We took this decision because, with the advent of commercial blade servers, it was now possible to build powerful compute clusters from industry standard servers without needing a football-pitch-sized data centre and miles of spaghetti like cabling.

It was a good business decision but the move away from proprietary hardware was a shame. Given some on the highly innovative stuff that Whitecross had produced over the years, I wanted to capture this brief history of Whitecross’s hardware innovation.

Back in the 80s

In the late 1980s computers were large, very expensive and lived in data centres. They generally had one central processor and small amounts of memory. We were developing software that was designed to allow the rapid analysis of large datasets by keeping the data of interest in-memory and deploying lots of parallel processing power. We needed platforms with hundreds of processors and large amounts of memory; clearly at the time this was not feasible using existing platforms, so we designed our own.

We called the first generation the 9000 series. The largest machine, the 9020, consisted of a box the size of a standard 19” data centre cabinet, filled with 348 processors, running at 20MHz, each with 16MB of memory and fibre optic networking. Doesn’t sound a lot by today’s standards, but to put it into perspective, commodity computing was just emerging in the form of the (PC) Personal Computer. A powerful PC took up half of your desk and contained a single 4.77Mhz processor that could address a maximum of 640KB of memory, so by comparison the 9020 was a hugely powerful machine.

Left picture below shows 9000 series CPU boards (6 x 20MHz CPU each with 16Mbytes RAM). On the right is the 9020 rack along side its smaller brother the 9010.

9000 CPU Board

It was also a very hot machine. Running 1400 times more processing power and 8700 times more memory than a PC in a single cabinet, it required a lot of power, which apart from the whine from the banks of industrial cooling fans, mostly turned into heat; 7.5KW of power and heat to be precise. Hence the need for four car batteries in each cabinet just to allow time for a clean shutdown.

The processors we used were the most advanced available at the time. Called Transputers, and made by Inmos, they had four on-chip, high speed serial communication links and were designed specifically for massively parallel processing. The Transputer itself is probably worthy of its own blog so I will leave its story for now. By the mid-90s it had become obvious that we needed to adopt a new processor and so we started the design of our 2nd generation platform, the imaginatively named 9800.

The 9800 was x86 processor based and was probably the world’s first blade-based computer system. The 9800 was a much more modular system, consisting of self-contained enclosures much like a modern blade system. It’s fair to say that the HP c-class Blade System design was significantly influenced by the Whitecross 9800.

9800 Blade Architecture
9800 Blade Architecture

The hardware platforms we produced were designed specifically for running our own software so strictly speaking they were appliances but certainly the 9800 being x86 based, running Linux and using Ethernet for communications, was very nearly a general purpose compute platform and the subsequent port of the software to run on industry standard blade servers in 2003 was a fairly simple process. Today Kognitio software can run on almost any industry standard compute cluster, on its own or increasingly as a part of a Hadoop stack as a Yarn application.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the 9800 did not contain any car batteries. By then we had decided to leave coping with power failures to the data centre designers.

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