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AMD's Opteron to power supercomputer

The company beefs up its server resume with a deal involving Sandia National Laboratories. The lab will install a $90 million Cray machine that runs on AMD's upcoming server chip.

In a deal that should buoy both computing companies, Sandia National Laboratories will install a $90 million supercomputer from Cray that will run on Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices.

The supercomputer, code-named Red Storm, will contain approximately 10,000 Opteron chips and be capable of churning 40 trillion calculations per second (40 teraflops) when it becomes operational in 2004. NEC's Earth Simulator, currently the world's most powerful computer, can perform 35.9 trillion calculations per second. Several supercomputers are in the pipeline that will surpass NEC's figure.

The contract is part of the Department of Energy's Accelerated Strategic Computing (ASC) initiative to build supercomputers that can, among other complex tasks, simulate nuclear explosions. IBM, Compaq Computer and Intel have been involved in past ASCI projects. In the most recent ranking of supercomputers, notable ASC-funded systems came in at Nos. 2, 6, 7, 9, 11 and 15.

The endorsement implied by the contract win will likely help AMD wedge its way deeper into the server market. The Opteron chip, which is based on a completely new design, will be incorporated into one-, two-, four- and eight-processor servers. Benchmarks released by the company last week indicate that the chip could become one of the faster processors on the market when it comes out in the first half of next year.

"The guys in the supercomputing field are very technologically astute," Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood said. "They will often go with a product for its technical merit, rather than its reputation."

Gaining popularity in the server market, however, is not easy. Most AMD servers to date have been marketed by smaller regional manufacturers. No major U.S. computer maker has adopted the company's chips for corporate desktops, let alone servers.

Lab endorsement can't guarantee success. The Alpha chip--touted in succession by Digital Equipment Corp., Compaq and Hewlett-Packard--was a favorite of supercomputer designers, but it never caught on in the open market.

Unlike Alpha, however, Opteron will run standard Windows and Linux code, which will likely ease adoption. Dell is looking at the chip and has said it will likely determine by the end of the year whether it will adopt it.

Since the debut of its Athlon chip in 1999, AMD has landed a number of high-profile supercomputer deals, including agreements with the University of Kentucky and the University of Utah. Most of these are clustered supercomputers, which are essentially regular one- and two-processor servers strung together into a massive conglomerate.

Cray, meanwhile, virtually invented supercomputing but has largely been pushed toward the fringes of the commercial computing market. The company sold technology to Sun Microsystems in the mid-90s that allowed Sun to become a giant in the server market.

Red Storm "will allow modeling and simulation of complex problems that were only recently thought impractical, if not impossible," said Tom Hunter, Sandia's senior vice president for nuclear weapons programs, in a statement. "Calculations that would have taken months only a dozen years ago will now be done in a matter of minutes."