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NEC supercomputer challenges U.S.

Japanese and American supercomputer makers are locked in a race to deploy new generations of the world's fastest computers.

Japanese and U.S. supercomputer makers are locked in a race to deploy new generations of the world's fastest computers, as Japan's NEC announced yesterday that it is developing Japan's fastest supercomputer yet.

Pride, both corporate and national, hang in the balance.

These new computers will be capable of performing between 30 and 100 teraflops--30 trillion floating point operations per second. The most powerful supercomputer in place today is capable of performing 1 teraflop.

NEC announced that it won a contract to provide an "ultracomputer" to the Earth Simulator Program promoted by the Science and Technology Agency in Japan. The computer, to be deployed by 2002, will create a "virtual earth," which will then be subjected to simulated natural disasters such as earthquakes. The agency wants the computer so that it may study the global effects of cataclysms and develop countermeasures.

This ultracomputer will perform at 32 teraflops and contain 4 terabytes of memory. The nerve center of the computer will consist of thousands of NEC vector processors strung together.

Meanwhile, on the American side, the Energy Department said it will deploy a variety of multiple teraflop computers under the Advanced Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI). In 2001, a 30-teraflop machine is slated for delivery while 100-teraflop machines are anticipated for 2004 or 2005. IBM and Cray Research are two of the manufacturers involved in the project.

Nationalism is an inescapable part of supercomputing. Cray and the Japanese manufacturers have been locked in a bitter dumping dispute since 1996 when Cray lost a $35 million contract to NEC to supply a supercomputer system to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a research group funded by the National Science Foundation.

In true form, NEC's press statement on the new supercomputer didn't mince jingoistic words: "The award of the present contract underscores the commitment and contribution Japan has accepted in serving the nation, and the world in general, in finding a solution to the problems of the global environment as an issue. It is a mission NEC accepts with a sense of great pride."

While NEC's next-generation supercomputer is targeted at natural disasters, the U.S. supercomputer effort is being primarily directed at an environmental catastrophe of a different stripe, according to Chris Willard, research director at International Data Corporation. The computers will be used to simulate nuclear explosions.

ASCI has already yielded the most powerful supercomputer installed to date, a 1-teraflop supercomputer made by Intel. Located at Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, the computer employs over 9,000 Pentium Pro processors. Three teraflop machines based around IBM?s Power architecture are scheduled from IBM toward 1999.

Ironically, competition is heating up in this arena as the field of supercomputer participants is thinning. The market has shrunk from being a billion-dollar industry to accounting for only $561 million in sales last year. "We don't see it returning to the '93-'94 levels," Willard told CNET's NEWS.COM earlier.

NEC and Fujitsu are the two current performance leaders in supercomputing, noted Willard. Cray obviously still competes vigorously, but he added: "Cray may drop off depending on what Silicon Graphics does." SGI owns Cray.

Hitachi, meanwhile, appears to be dropping behind the leaders in commitment and/or performance. Intel has already dropped out of supercomputing development. "They are pretty much out of the market," declared Willard.

IBM's overall dedication to cutting-edge supercomputing draws mixed opinions. While Willard said the company's long-term commitment may steer toward more commercially viable machines, Jerry Sheridan, principal analyst at Dataquest, said that the company seems committed to supercomputer development.

While the race toward the fastest computer in the world is inevitably colored by nationalistic feelings, pure technological prowess is also undoubtedly woven into the picture. "There is a list of the top 500 supercomputers, and independent of national pride, everyone wants to be on top of it," added Sheridan.