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Apple sells supercomputer sequel

U.S. Army contractor snaps up $5.8 million, 1,566-server supercomputer, as Mac maker angles for its share of the market.

A U.S. Army contractor has purchased a $5.8 million, 1,566-server supercomputer from Apple Computer, a real-world cousin to an academic system that briefly appeared high on a list of the most powerful machines.

In November, a machine called System X with 1,100 dual-processor Power Mac G5 workstations climbed to third place on the Top500 list of the most powerful supercomputers. On Monday, Huntsville, Ala.-based Colsa announced it's buying a larger system called MACH 5 to run Army simulations of the aerodynamics of flight much faster than the speed of sound.

System X, which vanished from the most recent list for upgrades, had sustained performance of 10.3 trillion calculations per second, or "teraflops." The Colsa system, made of dual-processor Xserve G5 machines, is expected to reach about 15 teraflops when it's up and running this fall, said project manager Mike Whitlock.

By comparison, the fastest system on a new version of the Top500 list, NEC's Earth Simulator, runs at a speed of 35.8 teraflops, and only one other system exceeded 15 teraflops.

Hewlett-Packard and IBM dominate the market for high-performance technical computing, with sales of $1.79 billion and $1.62 billion, respectively, in 2003, according to researcher IDC. But Apple is angling for its own share. It has released management software to control large groups of servers, and it sells models geared for supercomputing cluster use with unneeded components stripped out.

Much of the credit to Apple's successes thus far is due to the processor it uses--IBM's PowerPC 970--Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff said.

"The Macintosh software and the nice management features of OS X are factors here, but certainly performance of the processor is an enormous factor," Haff said. "PowerPC is a fast processor."

Indeed, the chip's abilities to perform a type of mathematical calculation called "floating-point operations" were compelling. "The floating-point units in that processor were particularly attractive," Whitlock said.

Colsa will use Mac OS X as the primary operating system, though it will evaluate other options including Red Hat Linux and Yellow Dog Linux, Whitlock added.

MACH 5, which stands for Multiple Advanced Computers for Hypersonic, G5, will occupy 42 racks and 600 square feet of floor space, said Anthony DiRienzo, a Colsa executive vice president. Apple was the winning bidder among six companies, DiRienzo said, declining to name the competitors.

One difference between MACH 5 and System X is the networking system that connects the individual servers. Where System X used the high-speed InfiniBand technology, MACH 5 will use the more conventional 1 gigabit-per-second Ethernet, DiRienzo said.

The fluid dynamics simulations Colsa will run require more processor power than top networking speed, he said.

System X's successor at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University is expected to be running in time to produce a score for the coming November version of the Top500 list, said Alex Grossman, director of server and storage hardware at Apple. The upgraded Virginia Tech system is being built using Xserve G5 machines.