Company executives said users could, eventually, order such systems on the Dell Web site.
The Linux-based cluster bought for the State University of New York's Buffalo campus includes about 2,000 of Dell's PowerEdge servers, with a combined total of more than 4,000 Intel processors. A storage-area network with more than 16TBytes of disk storage supports the system, valued at between $13m (£8.3m) and $14m £8.9m).
The clustered supercomputer can process up to 5.7 trillion floating-point operations per second and was designed for use in bioinformatics research at the Buffalo campus, including an analysis of what the proteins in different parts of the human genome do, work that could eventually lead to the development of drugs for combating cancer, Alzheimer's and AIDS.
The Buffalo system is surpassed only by a cluster that Dell sold to Paris-based Compagnie Générale de Géophysique for analysing seismic data as part of oil exploration activities.
Such high-performance clusters are, seemingly, far removed from the desktops, laptops and low-end servers for which Dell is best known. But Reza Rooholamini, Dell's director of operating systems and clusters, said the day would come when the server clusters can be ordered via the Web.
Rooholamini did not say when that would be likely to happen and conceded that a cluster "is more complex from an ordering standpoint than a notebook PC". He added, however, "it uses the same piece parts as our servers. We are just taking these parts and building blocks and connecting them into a supercomputer".
IDC analyst Mark Melenovsky called the sale of large-scale cluster computers "the only bright spot in the server market" this year. IDC reported two weeks ago that total worldwide server sales fell by 17% year on year in the second quarter. Melenovsky added, however, that he has seen a boom in the sale of large clusters with hundreds or thousands of nodes.
Nonetheless, he added, it was "a bit of a stretch" for Dell to believe it could take its build-to-order model to the supercomputer level. Melenovsky instead predicted the growth of a "boutique" services industry to help users handle the complex ordering and installation of large clusters.
A Dell spokeswoman did not specify how many large clusters the company has sold this year, but she added that Dell has installed "hundreds of clusters" altogether, including at least 16 systems that each have more than 100 server nodes.