Software company ScaleMP is claiming to have turned virtualisation on its head - instead of making one server look like several, it said that it can make a cluster of entry-level servers look like a single high-end machine.

Called Versatile SMP (vSMP), its software is a kind of pre-boot environment which loads from flash and uses Infiniband for connectivity. The clustered servers then appear as a symmetrical multi-processor (SMP) system, and can run standard multi-processor versions of Linux, said Shai Fultheim, ScaleMP's founder and CEO.

He said that while the server aggregation happens in software, like other clustering schemes, vSMP is below the operating system, not on top of it, which reduces the overhead involved.

"With [traditional] clusters, you need to work at the operating system or application level to parallelise it, and you have to set up a cluster file system and job scheduler," he explained.

"With our architecture and two two-socket machines with quad-core processors, you combine them into one, boot your operating system on top, and it sees one physical machine with 32 cores.

"We have RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) 4 and 5 working well, SLES (SuSE Linux Enterprise Server) 10 too, and any version of Fedora after 4 is good."

The advantages are that there's just one operating system to manage, and any application suitable for an SMP system should run, he said.

"ScaleMP's technology allows users to benefit from SMP characteristics such as simplicity of installation and management, as well as large memory, while leveraging the cost structure of low-end x86-systems," agreed Joseph Martins, managing director of analyst firm Data Mobility Group.

The new version - vSMP Foundation Standalone - follows on from an embedded version used by system-builders VXtech and Flextronics (the former resold here by Dell and SGI). High-performance computers based on vSMP are used by more than 50 organisations around the world, Fultheim said.

The embedded version can combine up to sixteen x86 boxes to create a single shared-memory system with 4 to 32 processors (128 cores) and up to 1TB of shared memory.

By comparison, the standalone version can combine two quad or dual-core dual-socket Intel Xeon systems into a four-socket 16-core platform for under $10,000 (£5000), said Fultheim.

"The benefits are it uses cheap, power-efficient off the shelf hardware - standard two or four processor servers, not specialist multi-processor hardware," he said.

He added that if you need memory more than processors, you can add a second single-processor server with lots of RAM and vSMP will only present the first machine's faster processors to the operating system.

Of course, with an architecture this complex, it's a tough challenge to keep it hardware-compatible, which is reflected in ScaleMP's extremely - almost woefully - short list of compatible hardware for vSMP Standalone. It contains just two systems, one from Intel and another from SuperMicro, though Fultheim said it is in the process of adding systems from HP, IBM and Dell.

It has also been nobbled by Intel - the embedded version was delivered on AMD platforms as well, but this release is Intel-only. "We have no plans to support AMD at the entry level - Intel is our launch partner," Fultheim said.

He added that vSMP Standalone will only be sold through VARs and system integrators, at prices starting from $2,750 (around £1400).