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Wolfram Alpha gets supercomputer boost

Two supercomputers--one of them the 66th fastest in the world at present--will power the Wolfram Alpha site for search, calculation, and data crunching.

One of my concerns with the public launch of Wolfram Alpha later this month is withstanding the crushing load the Internet can impose. But Wolfram Research revealed Tuesday it's building the service on the world's 66th-fastest supercomputer.

The machine, built out of Dell hardware by a company called R Systems, can sustain performance of 39.6 trillion mathematical operations per second, according to the November 2008 list of the top 500 supercomputers. That muscle will come in handy for Alpha, which I think of as a combination of a graphing calculator, search engine, and reference library that not only supplies some answers to factual, data-intensive questions but also does math in the process.

"There is no way to know exactly how much traffic to expect, especially during the initial period immediately following our launch, but we're working hard to put reasonable capacity in place. Will we have enough computing power to provide computable knowledge for everyone who visits? We hope so," Wolfram Research said on its Wolfram Alpha blog Tuesday

The system, called R Smarr, has 4,608 processor cores using 576 quad-core "Harpertown" Xeon machines, 65,536GB of memory, and high-speed InfiniBand data-transfer connections, according to the Top500 site and a Dell case study on the system (PDF). It also uses both the Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Microsoft Windows HPC Server operating systems, according to the Dell paper.

Alpha requests will be served from five co-location facilities, Wolfram Research said. There actually are two supercomputers in the project, with nearly 10,000 processor cores total and hundreds of terabytes of hard drives.

R Smarr doesn't use ordinary Dell servers. Instead, custom-made machines were ordered through Dell's Data Center Solutions division. "We evaluated the standard Dell PowerEdge servers, but at the time, those systems did not offer a server board that could deliver the high memory bandwidth necessary for our client," said Brian Kucic, R Systems' vice president of business development, in the Dell paper. Kucic.

Some of what goes on behind the Alpha covers is use of Wolfram Research's Mathematica software, which can perform a wide variety of mathematical and graphical operations. A massive number-crunching utility freely available over the Web sounds like a recipe for disaster, but in my tour of a preview version of Wolfram Alpha, I encountered a timeout limit of about 5 seconds in searching all occurrences of a particular sequence in the human genome, so it looks to me like Wolfram has the ability to throttle usage.