If Linux gets the job, it will be a key component in the effort to keep U.S. nuclear weapons working as designed, the main function of this new supercomputer.
The route to this lofty position could come via the confluence of an Energy Department program to build ever-faster supercomputers and computer maker SGI's strategy to move its machines to the open-source operating system. SGI spokesman Charlie Rasch confirmed that the company is a bidder for a computer called "T30" that is to be installed at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico.
Rasch declined to give further details about SGI's bid. Sources said that other bidders include Compaq Computer and Sun Microsystems, but company representatives could not immediately confirm the bids. IBM, which is building its own supercomputers for the nuclear weapons program, didn't submit a bid, said spokesman Jeff Gluck.
A contract to build supercomputers can provide a serious boost to a company's research and development budget. Contracts for current supercomputers at the weapons labs brought IBM and SGI $94 million and $121 million, respectively. The IBM and SGI contracts for their current machines, called Blue Pacific and Blue Mountain, respectively, were awarded in 1996 and are ongoing.
If SGI does go forward with the move to Linux and wins the contract, it would be a remarkable coup for the operating system, which at that point would be celebrating its 10th birthday. Linus Torvalds began the creation of the core part of Linux in 1991 when he was a computer science student in Finland.
Since then, it has become gradually more mature and popular, catching on first in universities and research labs like the one at Los Alamos. More recently it has become part of the product lines of respected computer companies such as IBM, Compaq, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard. Companies that sell versions of the operating system, such as Red Hat, also are gaining in stature.
There's no guarantee Linux will be used in the new supercomputer, however. For one thing, other companies could win the contract, which the Energy Department will award in the spring of 2000, according to Gil Weigand, the agency's deputy assistant secretary in charge of research, development, and simulation.
Moreover, SGI would have to succeed quickly in its plan to change from its current operating system and processors. High-end SGI machines now use SGI's MIPS chips and Irix operating system, but the company is in the process of a multiyear transition to Intel's IA-64 chips and the Linux operating system.
Still, SGI's transition to the new technology is well underway. SGI's former chief executive said in an earlier interview that the company is working hard to pump up Linux so it runs on SGI machines with hundreds of processors. And SGI's newest computer, code-named the SN-1, will accommodate Intel's first IA-64 chip, now called "Itanium."
"Two years is a pretty aggressive timetable for that," said Rich Partridge, a supercomputer analyst at D.H. Brown Associates.
However, "SGI certainly has the experience, [and] it may not be that they have to have everything out of the chute to start with," Partridge said. Because of the nature of the computing simulations, it may be possible to start with more modest machines and upgrade them in stages, he added.
While the government certainly will require certain levels of performance, one of the goals of the Energy Department program is to help companies improve designs for computers with an array of relatively ordinary processors, Partridge added. Consequently, the government is funding a certain amount of research and development and doesn't expect fully mature machines.
Irix is a version of Unix, and Linux is closely modeled after Unix, so the two operating systems aren't completely alien to each other. But Linux has a long way to go in catching up to Irix when it comes to multiprocessor machines. Irix currently works on 512-processor computers, whereas the effort to bring Linux to just eight-processor machines is just getting off the ground.
Though Linux is an open-source operating system--meaning its original programming instructions are publicly available--it will live behind closed doors if it's selected for use at LANL. Security concerns at the lab tied into spying accusations have focused more on transfers of data by people putting unauthorized material on removable storage than on attacks by hackers on the weapons computers, which are isolated in a classified network separated from the Internet.
The new supercomputer is called T30 because it will be designed to perform 30 trillion math calculations per second, a speed measured at 30 "teraflops." Construction for the building that will house the computer will begin next week, said Los Alamos National Laboratory spokesman Jim Danneskiold.
One question mark in whether SGI will prefer MIPS or IA-64 chips in its T30 proposal is the longevity of the MIPS architecture. While SGI has committed to support both for several years, SGI's financial turmoil could curtail its ability to bring substantial improvements to its MIPS line, Partridge said.
The Energy Department wants more than one company in the supercomputing program to make sure competition plays a role in advancing supercomputers as fast as possible, Weigand said. The DOE program, called the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative, aims to build a series of at least seven machines that will perform simulations to help guarantee the performance and safety of nuclear weapons in the absence of nuclear testing.
One big advantage SGI has in the bidding is its current relationship with LANL. SGI built the current ASCI machine at LANL and has a long-running relationship with the lab, historically one of the most eager purchasers of the Cray supercomputers currently within SGI. The existing machine is architecturally similar to the one SGI would build if awarded the contract, so much of the work in setting up the simulation programs has been accomplished. A winner other than SGI would mean a much steeper learning curve for the researchers.