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Making supercomputers out of cheap parts

Compaq has passed a milestone in a government-sponsored project to create a fast but cheap supercomputer out of relatively ordinary parts.

Compaq Computer has passed a milestone in a government-sponsored project to create a fast but cheap supercomputer out of relatively ordinary parts.

Compaq said today that it has demonstrated such a computer in its PathForward project, based at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The computer ties together 128 servers through a high-speed switch.

This approach of hooking up parts and components available on the general market to create gargantuan computing machines is growing increasingly popular as a way to tackle scientific and technical calculations.

The PathForward project fits into an Energy Department program called the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI), the crux of the department's effort to guarantee that nuclear weapons will work as advertised without conducting actual tests.

The initiative relies on assemblies of relatively mainstream elements, a departure from the supercomputer days of the past that relied on extremely fast but extremely customized machines. The program has helped to bring several companies known for business computers and ordinary desktop PCs into the supercomputer realm, including Compaq and Intel.

Other computers in the project include IBM's Blue Pacific at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Silicon Grapics' Blue Mountain at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Intel's Red Mountain computer at Sandia. Compaq became involved in supercomputers last year with another project at Sandia called the Kudzu Cluster.

Compaq's PathForward demonstration produced some blazingly fast computations but still wasn't fast enough to join the top tier of supercomputers. The PathForward system hit a benchmark speed of 154 billion calculations per second, well short of the ASCI program's goals of 30 trillion calculations per second by 2001 and 100 triillion by 2004.

The PathForward project is part of an $11 million, four-year contract with Compaq.

PathForward is based on 128 DS20 servers, each of which contains two Alpha 21264 chips. These processors, originally made by Digital Equipment, are lauded within the industry as being the fastest number-crunching commercial chips. The computer also uses Compaq's Tru64 Unix operating system.

Another key part of such systems is the switch that connects the different nodes within the computer. The switch can be a bottleneck when a calculation on one node has to wait for information from another. The PathForward project uses a switch from the British company Quadrics Supercomputing World.