Custom-Built Supercomputers Are Quietly Cool Share your comment!

Puget Systems, which custom builds a wide range of supercomputers for enthusiasts as well as enterprises, differentiates itself with its ultra-quiet systems—as low as 11 decibels above ambient. But the company has also figured out a way to maintain that quiet operating environment while keeping their high-performance platforms cool.

Puget Systems Peak Tower

Puget Systems Peak Tower houses up to three Xeon Phi cards in a streamlined cabinet with four front-panel USB ports, two 3.0 (blue) and two 2.0 (black).

As a custom-computer supplier, Puget Systems (Auburn, Wash.) offers a range of models culminating at the high-end in what it calls enthusiast-class high performance computing (HPC) platforms. As a result of its experience in these parallel HPCs, Intel’s many-integrated core (MIC) technology–and the Xeon Phi as its first instantiation–was a perfect fit to Puget Systems’ business model. By migrating its expertise in enthusiast-class HPCs to the growing enterprise and research-lab markets for affordable supercomputers, Puget Systems hopes to hitch a ride on the rising tide of massively parallel processors for business and science.

 “The Xeon Phi has given our company the opportunity to take our expertise in entry-level HPCs and bring it into the enterprise and educational lab environment,” said Jon Bach, president of Puget Systems. “When the Xeon Phi came out, we knew it was time to make the jump into that business.”

 All the expertise Puget Systems has accumulated over the years has been integrated into its new Puget Peak line of custom parallel processors based on the coprocessor concept. One of the key differentiators at Puget Systems, which will continue with its Peak line, is that its systems are ultra-quiet. Puget Systems spends extra time and money in its system architecture to make sure that sound is reduced to an absolute minimum. For instance, by using a few large fans that are tightly controlled to run only as needed, instead of many small fans that run most the time, Puget Systems has been able to make its computers operate as quietly as just 11 decibels above ambient.

Quiet Cooling

cooling the coprocessors

Instead of an array of small fans, Puget Systems Peak Tower uses just a few large fans. Those cooling the coprocessors are turned off and on in response to whichever Xeon Phi (two shown) is the hottest.

Maintaining the absolute quietest operating environment for the Xeon Phi posed a particularly thorny cooling problem for Puget Systems, since up to three coprocessor cards can be fitted into the Tower configuration (along with a Xeon E5 main processor). After much experimentation for an optimal solution, Puget System chose to put temperature sensors on both sides of each coprocessor and then use a custom circuit board to drive individual fans at each end to keep the system at optimal temperature with the least possible amount of noise.

“We have sensors on both the front and back heat sinks on the Xeon Phi card–basically the intake and the exhaust ports for air coming up through the heat sinks on the Xeon Phi cards,” said Bach. “When cooling multiple Xeon Phi cards it got kind of dicey, because we usually keep things quiet by using just a few big fans, which you can’t do easily with separate coprocessor cards. What we finally came up with was a whole array of temperature sensors and a logic board that monitors them and turns on the fans depending on whichever Xeon Phi is the hottest.”

Puget Tower with two Xeon Phi

Puget Systems Peak Tower is shown here with two Xeon Phi cards, but a third PCI Express slot above can hold a third Xeon Phi, an Nvidia graphics-processing unit (GPU) or the user’s own PCIe card.

Puget Systems is already fulfilling orders for custom Puget Peak Towers housing up to three Xeon Phi coprocessors, which it will begin delivering by the end of the month. Puget Systems is also planning on releasing soon new Puget Peak rack- and desktop-models of custom Xeon-Phi powered computers. The details are still under wraps, but the Puget Peak 2U model will mount four Xeon Phi cards in a standard double-height rack along with multiple Xeon-E5 main-processors. And the Puget Peak Mini desktop version will be toaster-sized and house a single Xeon Phi card with a Xeon-E3 main-processor.

Posted on July 10, 2013 by R. Colin Johnson, Slashdot Media Contributing Editor