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This week in supercomputers

A new list of the top machines is about to be released and SGI, IBM and others are jostling for bragging rights.

It's an anxious time for supercomputer makers, as a new list of the top machines is just about to be released. While they're waiting, the companies have been jockeying for position.

Silicon Graphics Inc., for instance, surpassed two speed records in a single day, giving new meaning to the term "all in a day's work."

SGI recently debuted its Columbia supercomputer, which it built for NASA. During the unveiling ceremony, the company touted the 42.7 trillion calculations per second Columbia performed using 16 of its 20 servers. That outpaced NEC's Earth Simulator and IBM's Blue Gene/L--two of the leaders on the list of the world's 500 fastest machines.

But that isn't all. It managed to run at 51.9 trillion calculations per second when Columbia used all of its 20 servers.

SGI isn't alone in putting the pedal to the metal. The fastest Mac supercomputer has gotten faster, thanks to an Xserve makeover.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University has tuned up its System X to operate at 12.25 teraflops, or 12 trillion calculations per second, up from 10.28 teraflops in its original incarnation, which used 1,100 Power Mac G5 towers. The performance boost comes in large part because Apple has made available to Virginia Tech custom 2.3GHz Xserve machines, which are faster than the 2GHz processors that power Apple's fastest machines. The school also added 50 additional servers, or nodes, to the system.

On to IBM: Big Blue has been quietly preparing a new twist on an older technology that will let it more directly compete with rivals such as Cray and NEC. IBM plans to bridge the divide between "vector" and "scalar" supercomputers by using a feature of its new Power5 processors. With a technology called Virtual Vector Architecture, or ViVA, the 16-processor cores of a scalar server such as IBM's Power5-based p5-570 can be yoked together to act like a single vector processor.

But IBM is trying to keep quiet about its ViVA effort. Its big publicity effort is devoted to Blue Gene/L, a scalar machine with which the company has staked a claim to top status in the supercomputer ranks.