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Tech Industry

New supercomputer initiative

The government's ASCI program is intended to simulate nuclear testing while also transferring leading-edge technology to the marketplace.

    Four leading computer companies have signed on to the U.S. government's effort to develop the world's fastest supercomputer by 2004, an initiative intended to simulate testing of the country's nuclear stockpile while also transferring leading-edge technology into the marketplace.

    Digital Equipment (DEC), IBM (IBM), Sun Microsystems (SUNW), and Silicon Graphics' Cray Research will cooperate with the national research laboratories in the Energy Department's PathForward program, the component of the Advanced Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI) that will develop multiprocessor, interconnectivity, and operating system technologies.

    The four-year, $50 million program clearly encourages the companies to quickly market the intellectual properties they develop. ASCI's mission is to replace nuclear testing with computer modeling.

    The pursuit of supercomputing technologies has typically been an ultra-nationalistic pursuit that has had more to do with national pride than with highly lucrative commercial applications, as evidenced by NEC's language in announcing last month that it will develop a supercomputer for Japanese simulation of the Earth's atmosphere. (See related story)

    In fact, one of the four PathForward companies, Cray, has been locked with Japanese manufacturers in a bitter supercomputer 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.

    But yesterday's debut of the PathForward program, unveiled by President Clinton at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, struck a different tone as government officials emphasized the applicability of more down-to-earth commercial technologies. "These companies will build upon current commodity computer systems to accelerate their technology plan to achieve the teraflops-scale systems we need to meet the requirements of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty," said Dr. Gil Weigand, a deputy assistant secretary at the Energy Department.

    In fact, not only will the PathForward companies retain all rights to the technologies developed, but the government signaled during contract solicitation and negotiations that the companies are expected to make the technologies available for mass-market use as soon as possible.

    "The government is really looking to promote U.S. industry in this area," stated Debra Canova, finance manager for high performance technology computing at Digital. "They're saying, 'We'll help you accelerate your development, but we want to buy it. [And] we want it to be commercially available."

    IBM and Cray are already working on ASCI, while Sun and Digital are new to the project. ASCI was conceived in 1996 in response to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits testing of nuclear devices.

    The first step called for building a machine capable of 1 trillion calculations per second (1 teraflop), and then a 3-teraflop machine, and onward up to a 100-teraflop machine by 2004. "ASCI Red," a 1-teraflop machine, has already been delivered by Intel, while IBM's 3-teraflop "ASCI Blue" will be delivered to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory by early 1999.

    IBM's participation will involve its RS/6000 SP supercomputer, one of which won notoriety for defeating world chess champion Garry Kasparov.