Genetics company buys mammoth IBM supercomputer

NuTec Sciences has spent millions of dollars on an IBM supercomputer that will be rented to researchers trying to solve the mysteries of the human genome, the companies are set to announce.

Stephen Shankland
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Genetic advances benefit IBM
Peter Morrissey, president, life sciences division, NuTec

NuTec Sciences has spent millions of dollars on an IBM supercomputer that will be rented to researchers trying to solve the mysteries of the human genome, the companies will announce Monday.

NuTec, based in Atlanta, will install the first quarter of the 5,000-CPU machine this month and the rest during the course of the next year, said Peter Morrissey, president of NuTec's life sciences division. "We will be occupying one floor of a professional office building in downtown Atlanta," where NuTec is headquartered, he said.

IBM said in a statement that the machine--with a peak performance ability of 7.5 trillion mathematical calculations per second--will make it the fastest nongovernmental machine.

Morrissey declined to say how much the computer cost beyond "tens of millions" of dollars.

Genetics--along with nuclear weapons, oil prospecting, and automobile and aircraft design--is a sweet spot for supercomputing. It's an industry where customers are willing to pay for every last whit of performance they can get. The increasing automation of genetic mapping has produced a wealth of raw data that often requires supercomputers to assemble, then more supercomputers to analyze.

Genes govern much of the biochemical workings of humans, including many diseases. Academic researchers motivated by curiosity and pharmaceutical companies motivated by profit have had their appetites whetted by the information now emerging from the federal government's Human Genome Project and Celera Genomics.

Gartner analyst Jim Cassell says supercomputers will be a $4 billion market in 2001.

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So it comes as no surprise that IBM and supercomputer competitors Compaq Computer and Sun Microsystems have keen interest in genetic research. IBM invested $100 million in August for genetic research, the same amount it earmarked for its own Blue Gene genetics computer a year ago.

Compaq, meanwhile, said in September it will pour $100 million into biotech companies. Celera is one of Compaq's prized customers.

While many genetic research techniques are the equivalent of monumental exercises in alphabetizing, the NuTec machine also will be useful for another sort of genetics research, into the creation of proteins, Morrissey said. Protein research typically exercises the mathematical abilities of a computer, something that chips from Compaq and IBM are better at handling than Intel chips.

Meanwhile, the Linux operating system is making headway in another type of supercomputer called a Beowulf cluster.

Linux Networx, based in Salt Lake City, has sold a 40-processor computer to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for genetics research, the company said Thursday.

The lab is using the cluster to analyze the genome of the fruit fly Drosophila, a common subject for genetics experiments.

Rosetta Inpharmatics also is using a Linux Networx system, spokesman Brad Rutledge said.

IBM is pulling ahead in the rankings of the fastest supercomputers. Although there is a movement afoot to develop measurements that better reflect actual performance, a move that would benefit supercomputer specialists such as Cray, there's no question IBM has made headway.

CNET's Linux Center The NuTec machine will be rented to customers who need the hardware and the analytical techniques NuTec has developed, Morrissey said. These techniques--called algorithms--often are commercialized by NuTec after government researchers come up with the initial ideas, he said.

The company, with 40 employees, also has a supercomputer in Houston made of a combination of Sun and IBM computers.