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IBM nabs hot supercomputer deal in arctic

The Arctic Region Supercomputing Center is harnessing the power of Big Blue's p655 Unix servers to study subjects such as the effects of changing climate on salmon.

IBM has sold 92 of its new p655 Unix servers to the Arctic Region Supercomputing Center to study subjects such as the effects of changing climate on the salmon population, Big Blue plans to announce Friday.

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The deal, worth more than $15 million, highlights IBM's growing power in the market for supercomputers and other high-performance computers.

IBM was the second-ranked company after Hewlett-Packard in the $4.7 billion market for high-performance technical computers in 2002, according to IDC, but Big Blue's business grew where HP's shrank along with the overall market.

From 2001 to 2002, IBM's sales grew 28 percent from $1.04 billion to $1.33 billion, while HP's shrank 25 percent from $2.1 billion to $1.58 billion. Sun Microsystems was in third place in 2002 with $944 million in sales, SGI in fourth place with $284 million, and Dell Computer in fifth with $273 million. In the fourth quarter, IBM was No. 1, with 37 percent of the $1.2 billion in sales, according to IDC.

IBM's p655 servers are Unix systems introduced in November geared for the supercomputer market. Each p655 has eight processors and is 7 inches tall, meaning that as many as 16 servers can be packed into a single rack. That collection weighs 2 tons.

The 's machine, called Iceberg, will use 92 of the p655s, each with 16GB of memory, and two 32-processor p690 machines with 256GB of memory. The machine will be fully installed by the fall of 2003.

Iceberg will use p690 servers with IBM's new Power4+ chip, which currently is available only in lower-end systems such as the four-processor p630 and eight-processor p650. Jim McGaughan, director of IBM's server strategy, said last month the faster chips are slated to emerge in the top-end p690 machines soon.

The Iceberg system will be used for combining 3D models of the ocean and biological information regarding fish. The Arctic Region Supercomputing Center, a facility at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, also is installing a $16.4 million Cray X1 supercomputer.

Individually, IBM's p655 isn't much of a supercomputer, but linking many together can result in a powerful system. That general idea also is being used with inexpensive computers called "Beowulf clusters," typically assembled from machines with dual Intel Xeon processors running the Linux operating system.

Dell, which hasn't had the technology for supercomputers in the past, now is tapping into this Beowulf trend.

Oxford University purchased four clusters with 10 Dell computers each for analyzing physics data, Dell said Tuesday. The University College Cork is using 50 dual-processor 1655MC modular servers, Dell's equivalent of small "blade" servers that slide side-by-side into a common chassis.

In addition, two customers upgraded existing Dell clusters. Jet engine manufacturer MTU Aero Engines expanded a 64-computer Dell cluster with 96 more machines, while petrochemical researcher Compagnie Generale e Geophysique is expanding a 512-server supercomputer.