Compaq expected to win supercomputer bid

The Department of Energy is expected to announce next week that the computer maker has won a bid for a nuclear weapons simulation supercomputer.

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Stephen Shankland
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The Department of Energy is expected to announce next week that Compaq Computer has won a bid for a nuclear weapons simulation supercomputer.

The contract, worth more than $150 million by industry estimates, will fund a computer with thousands of Alpha processors that will be built in 2002 at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), sources familiar with the plan said. The machine, part of DOE's Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI), is expected to be able to perform 30 trillion calculations per second, or 30 teraflops.

Representatives of DOE, LANL and Compaq declined to comment. "It's premature to comment on any potential future contracts," said Compaq spokesman Jim Finlaw.

Compaq beat out competitors Sun Microsystems, which had bid on the system as part of its new expansion into supercomputers, and SGI, which had hoped its incumbent status would help it win again. SGI built the 4-teraflop Blue Mountain computer currently at LANL.

But the real competition in the future looks to be IBM, according to Jesse Lipcon, vice president of Compaq's Alpha technology group, while discussing Compaq's recent contract for a $36 million, 2,728-processor academic supercomputer.

IBM has won bids for a 4-teraflop Blue Pacific machine and its successor, the 10-teraflop ASCI White at LANL's sister lab, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

IBM also has plans for a 1,000-teraflop supercomputer called Blue Gene to be used for biomolecular research.

IBM didn't bid for the LANL machine, representatives have said.

Cray, acquired in March by Tera Computer from SGI, has a long history of supercomputing partnerships with LANL.

The new Compaq computer will take up the better part of a 43,500-square-foot room--more than nine basketball courts in area. By contrast, ASCI White takes up a space the size of two courts. It will fit inside a three-story building called the Strategic Computing Complex being built now at LANL.

LANL has designed the building so it also can house the 100-teraflop machine, but it's not yet clear where DOE will decide to build the later machine.

DOE is considering upgrading the 30-teraflop machine to 50-teraflop performance as an intermediate step to the 100-teraflop machine, according to a DOE environmental assessment on the LANL supercomputing facility.

The computer is a key part of DOE's plan to simulate nuclear weapons tests in the absence of actual explosions. The more powerful computers are designed to model explosions in three dimensions, a far more complex task than the two-dimensional models used in weapons design years ago.

Aging of nuclear weapons materials such as plutonium spheres and high explosives causes deformations that aren't conveniently regular, requiring the use of three-dimensional models, LANL officials have said.

The United States conducted its last actual nuclear test in September 1992. In September 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, but the treaty was rejected by the Senate.