Academics Get Teraflop Computer of Their Own

The National Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure (NPACI) has signed an agreement with IBM Corp. to install the first computer dedicated to academic research that is capable of teraflops performance -- or one trillion calculations per second, NPAC and IBM said today.

The RS/6000 SP will be installed at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, where scientists will use it for the likes of climate modeling and storm prediction, as well as simulating the human nervous system with the hopes of better understanding the human brain, said Wayne Pfeiffer, a deputy director at SDSC in San Diego, California.

The highly parallel machine will run on IBM's AIX operating system and be driven by more than 1,000 IBM Power3 processors, officials said. The system is scheduled to be installed by the second half of 1999.

Just last week, IBM delivered to the U.S. Department of Energy a supercomputer that can perform 3.9 trillion calculations per second. That system will be used primarily for managing nuclear stockpiles. But the machine installed at SDSC will be the first teraflop machine dedicated only to academic research, Pfeiffer said.

"It should attract quite a bit of attention . . . We're excited about it," he said.

The system carries a list price of more than US$50 million [M], though SDSC is in the midst of price negotiations with IBM and expects "to get a better deal than that," Pfeiffer said.

In the not too distant future, scientists and academics should be able to use the Internet and a Web browser to tap into the power of multimillion dollar machine's like SDSC's RS/6000 SP, thanks to an initiative between IBM and the supercomputer center that was also announced today.

"What we're trying to do is make the interface almost transparent so that the user doesn't have to know how to program a supercomputer, or even be familiar with the (operating system)," Pfeiffer said.

Biologists, for example, using a remotely controlled electron microscope to study specimens could request 3-D reconstructions of the specimen.

"The user would just describe the problem without physically having to log onto the machine or be concerned with the arcane interfaces supercomputers have. How long before such a thing is generally available remains to be seen," Pfeiffer said.

Besides targeting traditional scientific and academic markets with its supercomputers, IBM sees a growing role for its high-powered machines in the corporate world, where they can be used for "econometric modeling," financial portfolio analysis, and advanced data mining applications, said Mike Henesey, director of technical computing with IBM's RS/6000 division.

"You can take very large sets of data businesses are handling today, like sales data, and analyze it to try to find the nugget of knowledge that will give a company a competitive advantage," he said.

A few businesses are already using powerful RS/6000 machines to run such data mining applications, Henesey said.

NPACI was established in 1997 as part of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Partnerships for Advanced Computational Infrastructure, and is led by SDSC, a research unit of University of California at San Diego.

The San Diego Supercomputer Center can be contacted on the Web at IBM, in Armonk, New York, can be reached at +1-914-765-1900, or on the Web at

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