A Mac-Style Supercomputer


By Charles Haddad Here's a groundbreaker in computing, one that Apple can't take credit for: A group of scientists at Virginia Tech has figured out how to build the world's next supercomputer -- on the cheap no less -- using Macs. And they're in the process of doing it.

While it wasn't Apple's idea, the company stands to benefit big-time. The opportunity isn't in supercomputing itself, a small market in which Apple has no standing. But Virginia Tech's progress in building a Mac-based supercomputer represents a high-profile endorsement of Apple's new G5 desktop, released just weeks ago, and the the first desktop to use a 64-bit microprocessor. Says Charles Wolf, who follows Apple (AAPL) for investment boutique Needham & Co.: "Virginia Tech is in effect blessing the G5 and its cost-effectiveness."

This endorsement couldn't come at a better moment. It should mute the uproar in the Wintel community sparked by Apple's claims that the G5 is the fastest, most powerful desktop on the market today. And it should impress the new chip's intended market of graphic and multimedia professionals, who need speed and computing firepower almost as much as scientists.

FAST ENOUGH. One thing Virginia Tech's Mac supercomputer won't do is expand Apple's market share. Supercomputing is a relatively tiny niche, about $4.5 billion in sales worldwide, and it's dominated by a handful of giant players such as IBM (IBM). As Wolf notes, "Apple is invisible in this market."

Still, Virginia Tech and Apple were made for each other. No computer is better suited to meet the university's needs than the Mac -- and not just because of its relatively low-cost firepower. Macs have always been the lever of choice for imaginative underdogs. Upstart advertising agencies and film studios have long used them to get the jump on Madison Avenue or Hollywood.

In academia, Virginia Tech fits this profile. It hungers to be a much bigger player in world-class research. And it's trying to do so in the worst of times -- this year alone, the state has slashed support for the university by $72 million. Like any good underdog, Virginia Tech isn't letting hard times kill its dreams of stardom. The school's scientists brainstormed for a low-budget way to scale the heights of research. Clearly, buying a supercomputer was outside their budget. So when Apple released the G5, the university's scientists took notice.

"QUITE UNIQUE." What attracted them was the G5's unique architecture. It uses dual processors to reach processing speeds up to 2 gigahertz. Virginia Tech scientists didn't care whether that was the fastest to date -- it was plenty fast for their purposes. They figured that if they strapped 1,100 G5s together, they could amass enough computing muscle to handle the massive calculations necessary for nanosecond electronics and computational chemistry. In short, they would have a world-class supercomputer.

And they would have it for chicken feed, relatively speaking. The Mac cluster will cost no more than $5.2 million, which is "quite modest," according to Tech officials. To save more money, the university is recruiting students to help set up 19.25 tons of computers, routers, and other equipment.

The whole low-budget arrangement will likely raise the furry eyebrows of research scientists worldwide. "For a university to do this from scratch, I think it would be quite unique," Hassan Aref, the dean of Virginia Tech's engineering college, told the Roanoke Times. And he should know, having been recently recruited from the San Diego Supercomputer Center.

APPROACHING DEADLINE. Apple realizes the tremendous public-relations opportunity here and has gone out of its way to help. "We've found Apple very receptive," says Virginia Tech spokeswoman Lynn Nystrom, who adds that Apple is helping to coordinate delivery and assembly among the project's other participating partners -- Cisco (CSCO), Liebert, and Mellanox. Liebert, a division of Emerson Electric (EMR), will build the cooling system to keep the supercomputer from overheating, and Mellanox will provide the cards, drivers, and switches that will connect the computers into a network.

A happy, smooth-running team is important to Virginia Tech. Eager to impress the world with its low-cost supercomputer, the school is racing to assemble it by Oct. 1 -- the deadline for the next contest that will rank the world's top supercomputers. Glenda Scales, Virginia Tech's assistant dean for computing, told the Roanoke paper that her school "will have one of the top-ranked supercomputing facilities in the world" when the project is completed.

If so, then Virginia Tech will have added another feather to Apple's cap -- if only inadvertently. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BusinessWeek Online


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