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IBM to build top supercomputer

Big Blue wins an $85 million contract to build the world's fastest supercomputer--a machine capable of 10 trillion calculations per second--by 2000.

Adding to a recent surge in supercomputer development, IBM (IBM) has won an $85 million contract to build a supercomputer for Energy Department that will likely be the world's fastest when it's completed in 2000.

The RS/6000 SP computer, part of a multiyear, multivendor effort by the DOE to push the bounds of supercomputing, will contain some 8,000 Power architecture microprocessors and be capable of 10 teraflops (or 10 trillion calculations per second), more than three times faster than the fastest supercomputer now in operation.

IBM will deliver the machine in a little more than three years to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as part of the Advanced Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI), an effort designed to produce methods for simulating nuclear explosions. The DOE uses supercomputers to verify the safety and readiness of the US nuclear stockpile.

IBM's computer, however, will not be on the peak for long. Last month, Japan's NEC Corporation said it is developing a 32-terraflop machine for purposes of simulating the world's environment.

ASCI kicked off in 1996 following the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits signatories from detonating nuclear devices, and calls for massive increases in computing power to undertake and improve simulated nuclear testing. Its road map ultimately calls for the building of a 100-teraflop supercomputer by 2004.

Nearly $400 million will be spent on the ASCI program in 1998. President Clinton's 1999 budget proposal, recently submitted to Congress, calls for a significant increase, to $517 million.

"The [Department of Energy] is the world leader in supercomputers. No one else is close to us. With today's announcement we are taking another step," said Energy Secretary Federico Pena today at the announcement of the computer in Washington.

The announcement marks the third time IBM has won a role in the ASCI program. In 1996, Big Blue agreed to develop a 3-teraflop machine dubbed "ASCI Blue Pacific" for Livermore by early 1999. Last month, IBM along with , Digital Equipment, and Silicon Graphics' Cray Research joined Energy's PathForward program, a separate component of the ASCI that will develop multiprocessor, interconnectivity, and operating system technologies for reaching the final 100-teraflop goal. Pathforward is a four-year, $50 million program.

One of ASCI's key features is the appropriation of technologies for commercial uses. Participants retain rights to the intellectual property they develop, and are in fact strongly encouraged to bring that technology to market.

In IBM's case, there are already some 600,000 RS/6000 systems in use, about 70 percent of them in commercial applications, according to IBM. The most famous RS/6000 was the "Deep Blue" computer that defeated grand master Garry Kasparov in a widely publicized chess match last year.

The development of supercomputers often takes place amid an environment of supercharged nationalism. Not only have U.S. and Japanese computer giants been leapfrogging each other with announcements touting plans for the fastest, or most powerful supercomputers, but also lawsuits have been filed following high-profile contract awards. Cray and several Japanese manufacturers have been locked in a bitter supercomputing "dumping" dispute since 1996, a dispute that has reached the highest levels of government.