Energy Dept. goes on supercomputer spending spree

The department will buy a series of supercomputers from Cray, IBM and Silicon Graphics to be installed at national laboratories, the government has announced.

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The U.S. Department of Energy will buy supercomputer technology from Cray, IBM and Silicon Graphics to improve civilian research at national laboratories, the government said on Wednesday.

The DOE granted $25 million for Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee for a Cray system rated at 50 teraflops, meaning one that can perform 50 trillion calculations per second, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Cray announced Wednesday.

The machine will be used for general research and for unclassified DOE-specific projects, the department said in a statement. The department expects to spend $150 million to $200 million total on the machine over the next five years.

That performance compares with 35 teraflops for NEC's Earth Simulator, a 5,120-processor supercomputer built in Japan. However, it's dwarfed by another DOE-funded supercomputer, called Blue Gene/L, that's set up at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and is expected to reach 360-teraflop performance by 2005.

In a speech Wednesday, Abraham said the Earth Simulator spurred the United States to respond.

"There is no question that Japan has launched a new era in scientific computing with its Earth Simulator machine," Abraham said, according to a DOE transcript. "Due to Japan's efforts, the U.S. must make the commitment necessary to regain the clear-cut lead in this new era."

ORNL spokesman Mike Bradley said the lab expected the machine to be the world's fastest for use in unclassified research. The lab hopes to expand its computing capacity to 150 teraflops in 2006, 300 teraflops in 2007, and 1,000 teraflops--or 1 petaflop--by 2009.

Oak Ridge's 50-teraflop machine will be built by upgrading its existing Cray X1, an exotic design, starting with a boost to 20 teraflops in 2004. That system will be supplemented with a more mainstream Cray Red Storm cluster machine in 2005, according to DOE.

A Cray X2 with 100-teraflop performance is expected in 2006 with an upgrade to 250 teraflops in 2007 at the Oak Ridge lab.

Also as part of the DOE program, Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois will buy a 5-teraflop Blue Gene/L from IBM. That marks the third announced installation of this type of system, after the Livermore lab system and a radio telescope project in Netherlands.

The funding is part of $30 million Congress allocated for the effort in the current fiscal year for work on supercomputer acquisition and research. The DOE requested that funding be increased to $55 million in fiscal 2005 and said funding at that level is possible for up to three years after that.

Cray's portion of the contract is $25 million, with the potential to reach $125 million depending on federal funding, Cray said.

Also as part of the deal, the lab will upgrade its existing 256-processor Altix machine from Silicon Graphics, SGI spokeswoman Ginny Babbitt said.