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IBM, Corning look into supercomputer optics

The Energy Department awards IBM and Corning $20 million to develop high-speed-connection hardware for supercomputers.

The U.S. Energy Department has decided to award IBM and Corning $20 million to develop high-speed-connection hardware for next-generation supercomputers, Big Blue announced Tuesday.

The 30-month program will focus on high-speed, optically switched interconnects designed to link numerous computers together into a single large machine, according to IBM. The technology is intended to replace today's supercomputing switches, which typically use copper wires and electronic switches.

Computing powerhouse IBM and fiber-optic technology maker Corning plan to have a working prototype by the end of the program, Big Blue said.

Optical communications, in which equipment sends information encoded as pulses of light, is an area of active research into bypassing the limits of electrical data transmission. The gear to handle the optical signals, however, is expensive and complicated, and optical technology is used chiefly in long-distance communication lines.

High-speed-communications technology is reworking the supercomputing business by enabling some customers to link independent lower-end systems with a higher-end network rather than building a single monolithic machine. The technology for this "clustering" task ranges from mainstream Ethernet to higher-speed links, from companies such as and .

Another technology being adopted for the supercomputing interconnect task is InfiniBand. IBM said its optical-connection technology will be able to use InfiniBand or other communication protocols.

Key to all the interconnect technologies is a combination of high transfer speeds and low delays separating when data is sent and when it arrives.

The IBM-Corning work falls under the Energy Department's funding for the , which is charged with using computers and other technology to ensure that the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile stays in working condition. The NNSA has already pumped millions of dollars into other computing systems for the work.

IBM said the IBM-Corning research would apply to other supercomputing fields as well, though, including biotechnology and weather prediction.

Separately, IBM also is expected to announce on Tuesday that it has begun selling a prepackaged supercomputing cluster using the Opteron processor from Advanced Micro Devices and based on its IBM's eServer 325 server. In the past, Big Blue has sold only prepackaged clusters of computers using Intel Xeon processors or IBM's own Power processors. It has also offered AMD-based clusters, but customers have had to configure and assemble the overall system themselves.

The pricing is $11,676.00 for a 4-node cluster, or $2919.00 per node.