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IBM juices up Energy Department

The federal government contracts with IBM to upgrade its IBM RS/6000 SP supercomputer and double the computer's processor count from 3,328 to 6,656.

The Department of Energy is tapping IBM for more computing power.

The department's National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) said this week it has contracted with IBM to upgrade its IBM RS/6000 SP supercomputer and double the computer's processor count from 3,328 to 6,656. The system is used for non-classified research.

Supercomputers are vast machines that focus the power of hundreds or thousands of processors to run simulations and test scientific theories. The upgraded RS/6000 SP will be able to deliver 10 teraflops, or 10 trillion mathematical calculations per second, to about 2,100 scientists affiliated with the Energy Department's Office of Science. These scientists are working in fields ranging from climate modeling and biology to physics and chemistry.

Citing great demand for the computer's capabilities among researchers, NERSC sought a fairly fast and easy way to boost its computing power. The center evaluated buying a new computer. But with its requirement for fairly quick turnaround, it decided to work with IBM to upgrade its existing machine instead.

IBM will begin installing the upgrade this month, and the extra capability is expected to be available by April, NERSC said.

"NERSC is seeing an unprecedented level of requests for time on our systems. With this agreement, we have an almost-instant solution to this situation," Horst Simon, director of NERSC at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said in the statement.

The contract, which also includes five years of support from IBM, is valued at about $30 million, NERSC said.

Upgrading can be a cheaper solution to starting over. New supercomputers often top $100 million.

One IBM supercomputer purchased by the National Weather Service cost a whopping $224 million. With 2,672 processors, it will be used by the service to provide more detailed and more accurate forecasts up to two weeks in advance.

The world's fastest supercomputer remains the Earth Simulator, a vast machine built by NEC. It is capable of delivering 35.6 teraflops for activities such as simulating seismic activity.

IBM's ASCI White, ranks second, delivers 12.3 teraflops, according to the company. The Energy Department purchased the 8,192-processor computer to simulate nuclear weapons tests.