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Boeing buys Linux-AMD supercomputer

The aerospace giant buys a 96-processor supercomputer based on the Linux operating system and AMD chips for use in designing a rocket to launch satellites.

Boeing on Wednesday bought a 96-processor supercomputer based on the Linux operating system and Advanced Micro Devices processors for use in designing the new Delta IV rocket that launches satellites into space.

The system was built by Linux Networx, a Sandy, Utah-based company that specializes in "Beowulf" clusters--gangs of networked Linux machines that collectively tackle computational problems.

The system is the fourth that Linux Networx has sold to the aerospace giant, but it's the first using AMD chips, said spokesman Brad Rutledge.

Though AMD is known chiefly for giving rival Intel a run for its money in the desktop computer market, the company also has a modest effort under way to crack into the low-budget Beowulf supercomputer market.

Supercomputers, used for heavy-duty number-crunching tasks such as modeling global warming or simulating car crashes, typically have been available only to large corporations or others with big budgets. But a newer generation of Beowulf systems is bringing costs down--though the systems aren't appropriate for all computing jobs.

Though the companies refused to say how much the Boeing computer system cost, Rutledge said Boeing also paid for training services, Linux Networx software and a high-end support plan. The system uses a modified version of Red Hat's Linux product, but Linux Networx plans to release its own version of Linux soon, he said.

Boeing will use the system for designing the Delta IV rocket model for launching 15-ton satellites into orbit. The rocket is expected to be ready in 2002.

About a fifth of Linux Networx's current systems ship with AMD chips, with Intel still used in more than half the company's systems and Compaq Computer's Alpha chip used on a smaller fraction, Rutledge said. However, AMD and Linux Networx are expanding a strategic relationship, and the cluster seller expects AMD chips to be used increasingly often in the future, Rutledge said.

One arrow in AMD's supercomputing quiver is 3DNow technology. The feature offers extra capabilities on a chip designed for accelerating desktop multimedia tasks that also can be used for improving number crunching on a Beowulf computer--if software is written to take advantage of the feature.

That trick isn't limited to AMD, however. Intel has comparable enhancements, as do Compaq's Alpha chips and others.

The University of Delaware and University of Utah also have purchased Athlon-based supercomputers.

One restriction on AMD systems, though, is how densely computers may be packed--a key requirement for customers lacking large amounts of floor space. The new Boeing system is made of computers 3.5 inches thick with one CPU apiece.

Intel systems, on the other hand, can be packed more densely, with dual-processor servers squeezing into just 1.75 inches.

To address overheating concerns, Linux Networx prefers to stack systems vertically, using a product called Evolocity that allows heat to escape upward naturally. The company is working on incorporating AMD chips into its Evolocity design.

The new trend, however, is to house several servers inside one enclosure, an "ultradense" strategy that reduces overheating problems. The systems typically stack the electronics boards vertically in a housing like books in a bookshelf.

Intel, IBM and Compaq are pursuing Intel-based ultradense servers, while FiberCycle and RLX Technologies are building systems based on Transmeta chips.