NEC updates vector supercomputer

The SX-8 is the latest incarnation of a high-end but relatively rare computer breed.

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Stephen Shankland
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NEC on Wednesday announced a new high-performance computer system, the SX-8, the latest incarnation of the high-end but relatively rare "vector" computer breed.

Most systems in the high-performance computing market are "scalar" machines that process information bit by bit, but NEC and rival Cray continue to sell vector machines that can process data and fetch information from memory in large chunks.

Vector systems are well-suited to mathematical tasks that crop up often in scientific and technical calculations. A collection of vector systems hooked together to work in parallel is the foundation of the Earth Simulator, an NEC machine that since 2002 has topped a list of the 500 fastest computers.

Starting in December, customers will be able to rent the SX-8 from NEC for a monthly price of $10,882 (1.17 million yen), the company said. A system with one processor costs about $460,000, while an eight-processor model costs about $1.2 million.

The company has a goal to sell more than 700 of the systems in the next three years--the same number of SX-brand systems that NEC has sold since it launched the SX-2 in 1983.

Vector systems once were more common among supercomputing customers, but nowadays among high-performance systems they're being overshadowed by scalar machines. Hewlett-Packard leads the market, with IBM in second place and gaining. Increasingly, customers are selecting clusters of low-end servers networked together, rather than single, standalone machines.

The SX-8 can be purchased as a single-node system with eight processors; as many as 512 nodes can be grouped together in a collection with 64 terabytes of memory, performing 65 trillion calculations per second, NEC said.

Cray and NEC had tangled in a case that accused the Japanese company of dumping, or selling below market value, its supercomputers on the U.S. market, but the companies settled their differences in 2001 with a partnership that let Cray sell the NEC machines in the United States.

How the SX-8 will affect the alliance isn't yet clear. "NEC is planning to sell this supercomputer to the U.S. market, but it has not be decided yet if Cray will sell them," NEC spokesman Susumu Sakamoto said Wednesday.

Cray's vector system is called the X1. The company also sells cluster systems such as Red Storm, and both types will be able to plug into a next-generation product code-named Mt. Adams.