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IBM scores big in supercomputing deal

IBM notched up another supercomputing win at major government research facility, a contract that will also serve as a computing showcase for its Power 3 processor.

IBM notched up another supercomputing win at major government research facility, a contract that will also serve as a computing showcase for its Power 3 processor.

The Department of Energy's National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has selected an IBM RS/6000 SP system as the center's next-generation supercomputer. The agreement is a fixed-price, five-year contract for $33 million, making it the "largest single procurement in the 68-year history of Berkeley Lab," according to a statement issued by the laboratory.

The laboratory cited IBM Power3 microprocessor as one of the most compelling hardware features of the system. The Power3 chip packs in 15 million transistors and can perform up to two billion operations per second. There will more than 500 of these processors used in the initial installation of the supercomputer system.

The Power3 processor is the sequel to IBM's Power2 architecture. "This will be our flagship chip for the next two to three years in high-performance computing," said Pete Ungaro, a research manager at IBM. The Power3 combines the best of the Power2 and PowerPC chip architectures, he said.

"When fully installed, [the system] will provide four to five times the total current computational power of NERSC, already one of the most powerful supercomputing sites in the world," the laboratory statement said.

"It's critical that [the computer] meet both today's scientific needs and the potential for even greater future demands," said Energy Secretary Bill Richardson in a statement. "Not only will this partnership with IBM achieve these goals, but our Berkeley Lab computing center's expertise will help IBM improve their computers to make them even more effective," he said.

IBM has already delivered a similar system to the National Centers for Environmental Prediction.

IBM's Ungaro says the company consistently competes with heavyweights such as Silicon Graphics' Cray supercomputers and those from NEC and Fujitsu.

IBM's design is a "parallel" architecture that splits up a task, with each processor working on a separate part of the problem, said Ungaro. He said that one of the main benefits of this architecture is that it can take advantage of the latest developments in microprocessors and essentially replicate this advantage hundreds of times over, since the systems generally use hundreds of processors.

Phase I of the installation, scheduled to begin in June 1999, will consist of an RS/6000 SP with 304 of the Power3 computer "nodes" each containing two processors recently introduced by IBM.

"In all, Phase I will have 512 processors for computing, 256 gigabytes of memory, and 10 terabytes of disk storage for scientific computing. The system will have a peak performance of 410 gigaflops, or 410 billion calculations per second," IBM said.

Phase II, slated for installation no later than December 2000, will consist of 152 nodes with each with 16 Power3+ processors. In all, the entire system will have 2,048 processors, giving it a peak performance capability of more than 3 teraflops, or 3 trillion calculations per second.

As part of the purchase contract, NERSC will also work with IBM to develop computer-utilization benchmarks to assess the effectiveness the SP system in its working environment.

"While the theoretical peak performance of supercomputers can be amazingly fast, that capability does not always represent real-world computing. To ensure that the new NERSC system is well-suited to the workaday world, NERSC and IBM have agreed to develop and test a 'SUPER' benchmark for the new computer. This set of tests will measure how well the [IBM system] delivers scientific work under a realistic workload," said Bill Kramer, head of NERSC's High Performance Computing Department and leader of the procurement effort, in a statement.

"Theoretical computer speed is comparable to the top end of a car's speedometer, and while your car might be able to do 150 mph on the open road, you're really more interested in how it will carry out your day-to-day driving chores," Kramer added.

One area of research that NERSC will use the new supercomputers for lay in creating accurate models of materials, such as magnets. "More powerful computers allow scientists to create larger models, of 1,000 atoms or more, and gain a better understanding of how magnetic fields are affected by temperature. Such research has applications in fields ranging from computer disk drives to power generation," he said.

NERSC provides high-performance scientific computing and data storage resources to about 2,500 researchers at national laboratories, universities and industry across the nation who are working on Department of Energy-funded programs such as combustion, climate modeling, fusion energy, materials science, and computational biology.