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Week in review: Supercomputers and superheroes

Even with all the iPhone hype, supercomputers managed to grab headlines, as did security gurus who save us from villainous Web attacks.

Amid all the hype leading up to Friday's iPhone launch, supercomputers managed to grab some headlines, as did security gurus from three prominent companies charged with saving us from villainous Web attacks.

It was November 2000 when the first supercomputer passed 4 teraflops, or 4 trillion calculations per second. Now that's the minimum requirement to even show up on the latest version of the Top500 list of fastest machines, which was released this week and put supercomputing in the spotlight.

The Top500 list, released twice annually, this time around marked the highest turnover yet compared with a preceding list. But one familiar supercomputer, IBM's BlueGene/L at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, again topped the list with 131,072 processors, far ahead of its closest competitors by achieving speeds of 280.6 teraflops.

Earlier in the week, Sun Microsystems revealed the Constellation System, a high-performance computing platform that company executives claim will vault the company back into the top ranks of supercomputer manufacturers.

The linchpin in the system is the switch, the piece of hardware that conducts traffic between 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.

Then on Tuesday, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard announced an extension of their long-running collaborative sales and marketing pact as they seek a bigger share in the growing market for supercomputers.

The two companies aim to give high-performance computers more "mass market" appeal by making them easier to deploy, support and manage. Enhancements will include work on Windows Compute Cluster Server that includes custom installation scripts and documentation aimed at making deployment easier.

As the hardware heavyweights jockeyed for position in the supercomputer realm, CNET also shined the light on another elite corps of technologists in a four-part series, "Wardens of the Web."

The job of policing the Web has been left to the corporate world by default. The burden weighs heavily on a trio of companies in particular: Google, Yahoo and Microsoft--the three firms with the most traffic on the Web. These companies offered a rare look at their internal operations and efforts to defend their technologies and online properties.

Leading the charge at Google, Douglas Merrill stands at the forefront of a critical period. At Yahoo, all employees are encouraged to be at least a little paranoid, but Arturo Bejar was the first to put it in a job title. And while Microsoft can draw from its desktop experience, Pete Boden says there are crucial differences on the Web and the stakes are high.

Web-based services are supplanting traditional desktop software at a blinding pace, taking over terabytes of personal data in the process. Unlimited e-mail storage and Web 2.0-style start-ups will accelerate that trend even more.

Yet access to those massive and indispensable resources is generally gated by a handful of large, profit-driven corporations, such as the above-mentioned leaders, who have become, in effect, the guardians of our most sensitive information.

Is that a good idea? The most disturbing answer, if history is any guide, is that we may not have much of a choice.

iPhone mania
News about Apple's new iPhone has been virtually nonstop during what some have termed "iPhone week." The hype leading up to Friday's launch has given CNET reporter Tom Krazit a sense of what it might be like to "to cover the Super Bowl," as he wrote in a reporter's notebook.

Coverage kicked into high gear Monday with the first reports of people getting in line for an iPhone outside Apple's Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan. The iWaiters have been camping out ever since, weathering heat and thunderstorms. Some of those in line are bucking trends in Digital Age materialism trends with plans to put the device up on eBay and donate the proceeds to charity.

One clear message has emerged from watching how Apple created the iPhone buzz: Marketing is a lot easier--and cheaper--if you let other people do it for you. What did Apple do to mount that campaign? Not much.

With AT&T as the exclusive carrier for the iPhone, the device's launch is likely to take a toll on wireless competitors like Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile USA. According to a recent poll conducted by M:Metrics, roughly two-thirds of people interested in buying the iPhone are not currently AT&T customers, but they say they're still willing to switch carriers to obtain the phone.

As for CNET readers, an informal survey indicates Apple has wowed many with the iPhone's design, but most will wait for a faster, cheaper version.

"The iPhone is Java support, missing stereo Bluetooth, weak 2-megapixel camera, no FM radio, no GPS, proprietary system, etc.," one reader wrote. "It's also locked to a single phone company, and worst of all it's not even a 3G phone."

Political hot spots
It was a week of debate for tech hot-button issues, ranging from a congressional vote related to digital ID cards to a blog standoff between's Charlie Cooper and TechCrunch's Michael Arrington.

In Washington, the U.S. Senate definitively rejected President Bush's immigration bill on Thursday, just hours after senators expressed deep misgivings with portions that would have expanded the use of a national ID card.

Because the procedural vote was 46-53, with 60 votes needed to advance the immigration legislation, the proposal is likely to remain dead for the rest of the year. And privacy advocates were quick to claim that a vote against Real ID cards the previous evening doomed the bill.

over a massive immigration bill, Real ID foes managed to preserve an amendment to prohibit the forthcoming identification card from being used for mandatory employment verification, signaling that the political winds have shifted from when the law was overwhelmingly enacted two years ago.

Also on Capital Hill, members of Congress on Thursday expressed reluctance to intervene in a raging conflict over new Internet radio fees scheduled to take effect in scarcely two weeks, saying they hope Webcasters and the record industry can work things out.

And a key U.S. Senate Democratic leader escalated his committee's ongoing quest for more answers about a once-secret warrantless wiretapping program, issuing subpoenas on Wednesday to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and three other Bush administration officials.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) formally requested an avalanche of documents describing the legal basis for the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program and any other ongoing classified surveillance programs. Besides Gonzales, the senator targeted high-level attorneys at the White House, Vice President Dick Cheney's office and the National Security Council. The Senate Judiciary Committee, which Leahy heads, authorized the court orders by a bipartisan 13-3 vote last Thursday.

Back on the home front, there has been a lot of heated talk around the virtual water cooler regarding last week's disclosure that several online publishers and venture capitalists lent their voices in seeming support of Microsoft's "People Ready" advertising slogan. Cooper put out the question, "Why would these guys inexplicably pimp a Microsoft catchphrase?" and some took issue with his criticism.

The brouhaha led to poll readers about whether bloggers should adhere to a strict line between advertising and editorial. The results: 72.5 percent say, Yes, it's vital; 14.4 percent say the gray area is where the action is; and 13 percent say no, it's a spurious distinction.

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