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Holy Screaming Teraflops


After more than two years of playing second fiddle to Japan in supercomputers, the U.S. has clawed its way back to the head of the pack. A machine from IBM (IBM) called Blue Gene/L, now being installed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, holds the world record for supercomputing speed, scoring 92 teraflops. That's a mind-blowing 92 trillion floating-point calculations every second.

In fact, Japan has suffered a double blow. NASA's Columbia supercomputer, built by Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI), clocked 61 teraflops last fall. Both U.S. machines trumped the previous leader, the Earth Simulator from NEC Corp (NIPNY). With a peak speed of 41 teraflops, it had been the reigning champ since March, 2002.

As soon as Japan took the title, U.S. supercomputer users in industries such as autos, aerospace, and drugs began clamoring for still speedier machines. Better computers, they note, mean superior product designs and faster time to market. At a November supercomputing meeting in Pittsburgh, Alexander Akkerman, a senior technical computing guru at Ford Motor Co. (F), lamented a decade-long lack of U.S. progress in high-end computing. Ford wants beefier computers so it can run stress tests on entire engine blocks. And with its Columbia system, NASA can now predict where a hurricane will hit land five days in advance, instead of previous two-day warnings.

For the next few years, IBM's Blue Gene seems to have a lock on the No. 1 spot in the industry's premier ranking, known as the Top500 Supercomputer Sites. This year, Big Blue expects Blue Gene to hit a screaming 360 teraflops.

SGI aims to surpass even that incredible speed. Before 2009, it plans to build a petaflops supercomputer -- a machine that can chew through a quadrillion calculations every second. Cray (CRAY), IBM, and Sun Microsystems (SUNW) all aim to hit the same benchmark, as part of a competition funded by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. With petaflops computers, Detroit could run rapid simulated crash tests of whole cars, not just fenders and bumpers.

Shorter term, the battle for No. 2 will be intense. In addition to Hewlett-Packard and the other established players, newcomers such as California Digital, Dell (DELL), and Linux Networx all plan to unveil new hardware. And Cray Inc.'s supers at two Energy Dept. national labs -- Oak Ridge and Sandia -- could climb to 100 teraflops and higher by around 2007.

Even Groupe Bull, France's venerable computer maker, is staging a comeback in supers. By yearend it will install a Columbia-class system for the French Nuclear Power Agency -- and by 2010, the machine might grow to rival Blue Gene. Japan's NEC isn't about to knuckle under, either. In mid-October, the company unwrapped a new system, dubbed SX-8, that can reach speeds of up to 65 teraflops.

So whatever machine in ranked No. 2, its glory days may be short. Even Blue Gene's reign could end late this decade. The only sure bet is that one-upsmanship will be good for business. As SGI Chairman Robert R. Bishop regularly notes, "To outcompete in the 21st century, U.S. industry must out compute." That's why the Top500 list is closely watched: It's a harbinger of industrial competitiveness.

By Otis Port in New York


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