Trivia question: What's the most expensive part in supercomputers?

Isn't DRAM supposed to be a commodity?

Making a supercomputer used to require teams of dedicated scientists, millions in federal research grants, and lots of specialized components that took years to design.

Thanks to clustering and other advances, a group of well-trained grad students can build one from off-the-shelf parts. As a result, the rankings in the Top 500 Supercomputers list changes more rapidly than the standings on Dancing with the Stars.

So with commoditization, what's the most expensive thing? The cooling system? The processors?

Weirdly, it's the memory, says Andy Bechtolsheim, senior vice president of Sun Microsystems' systems group and a co-founder of Sun, who revealed the company's Constellation System this week.

"The dominant cost of the systems is memory, DRAM, believe it or not," he said. A typical supercomputer will require millions of DRAM chips. DRAM drops in price like crazy--the average selling price of DRAM dropped 35 percent from December to April. But millions of chips are millions of chips.

The cables aren't cheap either. In fact, they cost more than the silicon inside switching systems.

Electricity is a problem, too.

"The cost of electricity is now showing up in the bids," he said. It varies by geography. Sandia's Oak Ridge lab in Tennessee has an advantage in this area because it's located in a hydroelectric hotbed.

Tech Culture
About the author

    Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.


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