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GM springs for IBM supercomputer

The automotive giant will install one of the world's fastest systems to run crash simulations. The sale is a big boost to IBM's momentum in the supercomputer market.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
General Motors has purchased an IBM supercomputer capable of performing 9 trillion calculations per second to speed up crash and safety simulations, a significant shot in the arm for Big Blue's supercomputer effort.

The system, a cluster of Unix servers connected with a high-speed network, will use more than 2,000 processors. About half are in a collection of 145 p655 servers being installed now that use IBM's Power4 processor, and the remainder are Power5 processors in servers scheduled to arrive by the end of the year, GM and IBM executives said Wednesday.

The system, twice as fast as an earlier IBM supercomputer at GM, is "most likely the most powerful system of any industrial company," said Frank Roney, IBM's lead salesman for the GM account, in a news conference. The companies wouldn't disclose the system's price.

The performance of GM's new machine--9 trillion calculations per second, or 9 teraflops--is equivalent to the fourth-fastest system on the most recent list of top 500 supercomputers, though that list will be updated at least once by the time GM's system is fully operational.

The GM supercomputer will be used to improve automotive safety research by simulating crashes with mathematical models rather than performing real-world crash tests, said Robert A. Kruse Jr., GM's executive director of vehicle integration. "At a cost of $500,000 per (crash test) vehicle, this has resulted in substantial savings," as well as the ability to test more designs than was previously possible, Kruse said.

IBM is amid a concerted attack on the high-performance technical computing market, which includes not just mammoth systems such as GM's but also a large number of much smaller systems.

Big Blue is No. 2 in the market but is gaining on top-ranked Hewlett-Packard, according to market researcher IDC. In 2003, high-performance technical computing revenue grew 13.8 percent overall to $5.4 billion, but IBM's sales grew faster--21.9 percent to $1.62 billion.

From 2002 to 2003, IBM's share of the market grew from 28.2 percent to 30.2 percent while HP, with $1.79 billion in revenue for 2003, shrank slightly from 33.6 percent to 33.5 percent. Next in line were Sun, with $981 million in revenue, Dell with $387 million, Silicon Graphics with $224 million, Cray with $157 million and NEC with $67.5 million, according to IDC.

For the high-performance technical computing market, IBM sells Unix servers with Power processors as well as clusters of Linux servers using Advanced Micro Devices and Intel processors. It's also working on an experimental design called Blue Gene.

IBM is aiming its Power line chiefly at Intel's Itanium chip family today, but Power chips also are used in Apple computers and future Sony gaming consoles, and Big Blue is trying to make it easier for others to expand the Power chip family.

IBM's Power-based servers chiefly run IBM's version of Unix, AIX, but the company is pushing Linux as well. Indeed, Blue Gene uses a Power processor variant and Linux.

While the high-performance technical computing market is vastly smaller than the overall server market, IBM--along with competitors including Sun, Dell and HP--sell technology that works for both types of customers.

IBM also competes with specialists such as Cray and Silicon Graphics that have had divergent fortunes this week. Cray on Monday sold its X1 supercomputer to the U.S. Army's Space and Missile Defense Command. SGI, meanwhile, reported a net loss of $7 million for its quarter ended March 26, narrower than the $48 million from a year earlier, but said order rates weren't as strong as it projected. SGI's revenue increased 6 percent from $217 million to $230 million.