IBM vs. Cray in supercomputing showdown
The latest big news in supercomputer land came Wednesday: IBM has won a contract from the U.S. Department of Energy to build the fastest computer on earth, in part by using 16,000 "Cell" micro-processors that would have otherwise found their way into the handheld Sony PlayStation gaming devices.
Supercomputers are sexy, so mainstream press types like John Markoff of The Times picked up the item, noting that the contract was worth roughly $110 million, and the energy-efficient, Linux-driven hot rod, codenamed "Roadrunner," will be installed in a 12,000 square foot air-conditioned room at the Los Alamos National Labratory in New Mexico. One imagines it just down the hall from BlueGene/L, currently fastest in the world, not to mention its cousin Purple the previous IBM-built, multi-million dollar champ.
Missed in the various press reports, however, was the devious way in which the DOE has set the stage for an epic all-American supercomputing face-off. Less then two months ago, Cray announced that the agency had awarded it a $200 million contract to expand its liquid-cooled XT3 machine at the Oak Ridge Labratory, and touted this as the first contract-in-hand to deliver a "petaflop" computer. (Supercomputers are measured in terms of their ability to perform "floating point operations per second," or "flops." To date, the fastest machines have achieved "teraflop" speeds, or a trillion operations per second -- BlueGene/L has a theoretical capacity of 367 teraflops. Both the Cray, codenamed "Baker," and "Roadrunner" should be able to break 1,000 teraflops, or one petaflop.) So it would seem the DOE was looking for some healthy competition.
Portfolio diversity is a good thing, of course, whether in stocks or supercomputers, and so we applaud this multi-vendor strategy. And we also look forward to the Cray vs. IBM race which should finish sometime in 2008 when both machines are scheduled to be switched on.
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