Magazine

Introduction


Some 5,000 scientists, engineers, and business managers flocked to Baltimore the week of Nov. 18 for an annual update on supercomputing. Sponsored by the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers, the SC2002 expo was brimming with news. Senior Writer Otis Port culled these highlights: Earth simulator was the talk of the Baltimore show. Built by NEC (NIPNY), it became the new world speed champ last March, rated at a peak speed of 40 trillion calculations per second, or 40 teraflops--three times faster than the mightiest U.S. supercomputer. In a keynote address, Tetsuya Sato, head of the Earth Simulator Center in Yokohama, reported another shocker: On some problems, Earth Simulator sustains an average speed of 75% of its peak speed, compared with perhaps 15% of peak speed for most U.S. supercomputers.

But the U.S. is battling back. Thor's Hammer is a prototype computer at Sandia National Laboratories, developed in partnership with Cray Inc. (CRAY), that uses microprocessors from Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). By 2004, a Sandia system called Red Storm with 10,000 AMD chips will match Earth Simulator, and perhaps hit 100 teraflops by 2006. Cray also announced its new Cray X1, which will offer up to 52 teraflops next year. By decade's end, Cray could have a 1,000 teraflops system. That's also the speed target for IBM's Blue Gene/L, slated for 2004. Once, only a handful of government labs and corporate giants could afford to solve tough problems with supercomputers--or enable researchers to swim in a pool of simulated atoms. But the World Wide Web and high-speed networks are changing that. With so-called grid computing, even personal computers can serve as a virtual supercomputer if enough of them are linked together.

Now, Cern--the European Center for Particle Physics, where Tim Berners-Lee conceived the Web--is hatching a way to accelerate grid computing. Cern researcher Wolfgang Hoschek said new software will soon scan all the available computers on the Web and find the most efficient combination to solve a particular problem. Divvying up a grid problem among disparate computers will no longer be a major headache.

In a similar effort, Entropia and the San Diego Supercomputer Center described progress on software that will help a grid organize itself, initially for online computational chemistry. And Platform Computing has joined with five Texas universities to improve cooperation among computers--and among various grids. It's dubbed the Grid of Grids. In the meeting rooms and exhibit booths, advances in biological research sparked excitement. NASA's exhibit featured a simulation of a new artificial heart and a model of blood flowing through the body, produced with Stanford University. Eventually, the model will enable surgeons to play what-if games when planning cardiovascular operations.

Two papers described new insights into cellular mechanisms. Klaus Schulten, director of theoretical biophysics at the University of Illinois' Beckman Institute, told how his team cracked the secret of aquaporin. This tubelike protein (model below) conducts water into cells, then traps protons, which are essential to a cell's energy supply. Tapping into the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, Shulten's group built a model of aquaporin, then watched as water molecules entered, oxygen atom first, pirouetted midway through so hydrogen led the way out, and dropped off a proton in the process. The model may point to new treatments for kidney disease.

Frederick H. Hausheer, CEO of BioNumerik Pharmaceuticals, said simulations are also uncovering hidden mechanics of cancer and drug-DNA interactions. His company has two cancer drugs in clinical studies. -- At some SC2002 sessions, talks were immediately converted into text on a computer display on the stage--and with pretty fair accuracy. To show the power of grid computing, voice signals were zipped to Franklin Park, Ill., converted to text by software from Caption First, and bounced straight back. University of Wisconsin researchers helped develop the system, and they're also working on a speech-to-sign language variation.

-- Gilgamesh refers to a new supercomputer chip design developed by California Institute of Technology, University of Vienna, and NASA. To help future supercomputers deal with hundreds of trillions of instructions every second, the chip combines microprocessor and memory circuits on the same silicon. The Gilgamesh design could be essential for "petaflop" computers that will whip through a quadrillion calculations per second.

-- Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory dreamed up a catchy name for their new home-built $335,000 supercomputer. Green Destiny crams 240 processor chips from Transmeta (TMTA) into a compact box that spits out up to 40 gigaflops, yet sips only 5,200 watts of electricity. On a flops-per-watt basis, that's less than 1% of what many supers gulp, thanks to Transmeta's power-stingy chips.


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