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IBM's second Blue Gene/L for a Dutch telescope

The company confirms that it will install a second Blue Gene/L supercomputer as part of a radio telescope project in the Netherlands.

IBM will install a second Blue Gene/L supercomputer as part of a radio telescope project in the Netherlands, the company said Monday.

As first reported by CNET, the supercomputer will be used for a new radio telescope project called Lofar, short for Low Frequency Array, run by a Dutch organization called . The supercomputer, which is expected to be completed in 2005, will run the Linux operating system, use about 12,000 processors and perform about 34 trillion calculations per second, IBM said.

The Lofar Web site said Astron signed a memorandum of understanding in November to use Blue Gene in conjunction with the telescope. Astron and IBM will jointly develop the system, which must be able to process large quantities data.

Today's fastest machine, NEC's Earth Simulator, built in 2002, has a speed of 35.6 trillion calculations per second, but new competition is edging closer, as Blue Gene/L and several other systems bring new blood lines to the supercomputing gene pool.

Other new systems reshaping the list include one at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University with 1,100 dual-processor Apple Computer machines, based on IBM's PowerPC 970 chip, and another at Los Alamos National Laboratory that uses 2,816 Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices.

Another new chip is coming as well: Linux Networx announced Thursday that it sold the U.S. Army Research Laboratory a system that uses 2,132 Xeon processors--1,066 of which are for Intel's newly announced 64-bit "CT" extensions. The extensions, similar to those in AMD's Opteron, are expected to arrive by June with Intel's "Nocona" version of Xeon.

Blue Gene began as a research project to investigate the biotechnology challenge of how proteins fold into complex three-dimensional shapes. But IBM has been working to move Blue Gene closer toward a product customers will buy for tasks such as financial risk analysis or global climate modeling.

The first Blue Gene/L machine will be housed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. It is designed to have a top speed of 360 trillion calculations per second, or 360 teraflops.

Its processors are special variants of IBM's Power family. Each chip has two processor "cores," with one core for processing data and the other for communications, with five different networks that will shuttle data across the machine. For tasks requiring little communication, both cores can be used for calculation.

One "half rack" of Blue Gene/L, with 512 dual-core processors, ranked at No. 73 on the most recent list of the 500 fastest supercomputers.

Lofar is expected to begin initial operations in 2006 and full operations in 2008, according to the Lofar Web site.

Its design lacks the moving parts of a conventional dish antenna radio telescope. Instead, it is expected to use an array of about 20,000 to 30,000 sensors that gather data from the entire sky. Computer control systems will process the information so that the array's attention can effectively be pointed to a specific patch of the sky.

Research subjects could include the early universe, supernovas, Jupiter, galaxy formation or a map of cosmic-ray origins.

The system will also use its computing power for conducting continuous searches of large parts of the sky for short-term events with bursts of radio frequency emissions. In addition, data will be stored in temporary buffers so that it can be examined after the fact, if other telescopes discover radio frequency bursts.

Computers are also required to compensate for distortions of radio signals caused by Earth's ionosphere. A byproduct of this correction process is a three-dimensional model of the ionosphere above the telescope.