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Sun's super supercomputer to launch

Sun looks to challenge IBM in rankings of world's top supercomputers with Constellation, which will get its coming-out party next week.

MENLO PARK, Calif.--It got delayed a few months, but a new, somewhat unusual supercomputer from Sun Microsystems will get formally unveiled next week.

The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at the University of Texas will dedicate a Constellation System from Sun on February 22, said John Fowler, executive vice president of systems at Sun. He was speaking at the company's global media summit here Wednesday. (Technically, the computer started running earlier this month: the dedication is sort of like the official coming-out party.) After TACC, Sun hopes to start selling Constellations to more customers.

The linchpin of Constellation is the switch, the piece of hardware that conducts traffic among the servers, memory, and data storage. Code-named Magnum, the switch comes with 3,456 ports, a larger-than-normal number that frees up data pathways inside these powerful computers.

Sun supercomputer

"We are looking at a factor-of-three improvement over the current best system at an equal number of nodes," said Andy Bechtolsheim, chief architect and senior vice president of the systems group, in June about the Constellation concept. "We have been somewhat absent in the supercomputer market in the last few years."

Sun had hoped to launch the TACC system in October, but it ran into a variety of technical problems. First, AMD delayed the Barcelona processors that go inside the computer. "We got a special run of chips from AMD to make our commitments," said Fowler. Sun will later release more standard Barcelona servers when the chips become available.

But it wasn't all AMD, Fowler said. Constellation also sports a new type of cable, invented by Sun, which comes with three connections per cable. Manufacturing these cables, and then snaking them around the TACC center to link up computers, proved tougher than expected, he said.

Technical glitches also popped up with the Magnum switch. (Even though Sun did have technical problems with its own computer, Fowler said that third-party suppliers would provide Sun financial compensation for delays, the normal arrangement in these types of contracts.)

The TACC system will provide a peak performance of around 500 teraflops, or 500 trillion operations a second, and can be increased. It will be made up of 82 Sun blade racks stuffed with servers, 2 petabytes of storage, said Fowler. The whole system will fit inside a mid-size conference room but provide more computing power than all of the supercomputers the National Science Foundation has today.

The architecture will also allow Sun, according to the company, to challenge IBM in the rankings for the world's top supercomputers. IBM has dominated the supercomputer rankings with a series of Blue Gene systems for the last several years.