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IBM unleashes supercomputing champ

Big Blue and the federal government are set to unveil a system that ranks as the world's most powerful.

IBM and the federal government will unveil Wednesday a system that ranks as the world's most powerful supercomputer.

The pair will declare ASCI White open for business during a dedication ceremony to be held at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif.

ASCI White, which packs 8,192 IBM Power3 processors and 160 terabytes of disc storage, will be used for nuclear weapons testing, including warhead safety and simulation of nuclear explosions.

The machine is one of a series of supercomputers commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy to test nuclear weapons. It gets its name from a funding program, called Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI), that provides money to computer makers for creating supercomputers out of comparatively ordinary computer components.

Supercomputers are the fastest class of computers, generally constructed by tying hundreds of processors together to tackle mathematics-intensive tasks such as weather forecasting and genetics research.

As it stands now, ASCI White is the fastest of the fast. The supercomputer can process information at up to 12.3 trillion calculations per second. That makes it No. 1 on the Top 500 list of supercomputers, equaling the combined capabilities of the next three fastest computers on the list, which top out at around 4 trillion calculations per second.

Getting to work early
IBM says the ASCI White supercomputer is ahead of schedule and producing scientific data after a shakedown period.

It's "been up and running for four or five months and has been going through testing," said Peter Ungaro, vice president of high performance computing sales for IBM.

Recently, scientists began using the computer for its intended research.

"We're actually getting real scientific results off the computer right now," Ungaro said.

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For its part, IBM has been on a supercomputer run of late. Most recently, the company announced a supercomputer based on its forthcoming Power4 chip. The $27 million deal will install a supercomputer capable of 4.24 trillion calculations per second at the Korea Institute of Science, Technology and Information.

But to date, no company has plans to build a computer that would eclipse ASCI White, with its 8,192 processors and its huge physical size and weight--it's as big as two basketball courts and weighs in at 106 tons.

"On paper, we've put together systems that are larger," Ungaro said. "We just haven't found the customer yet."

Several other companies are also involved in the ASCI program. They include SGI, which built a supercomputer named Blue Mountain at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., and Intel, which built the ASCI Red machine at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M.