October 26, 2004 1:17 PM PDT

SGI claims lead in supercomputer race

MOFFETT FIELD, Calif.--Although a victor won't be declared for two weeks yet, Silicon Graphics has become the second computer maker to boast that its machinery is leading a competition for world's fastest supercomputer.

The system, a $50 million Linux-based NASA machine called Columbia, which SGI sold in July, can perform 42.7 trillion calculations per second, or 42.7 teraflops, SGI announced Tuesday. However, that speed isn't the final word: The system used only four-fifths of the 10,240 Intel Itanium 2 processors in the full machine being uncloaked at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

The speed is a notch faster than the 36.01 teraflops IBM reported for its Blue Gene/L system in September. That performance was enough to edge Big Blue ahead of NEC's Earth Simulator, which since 2002 has led a list of the world's 500 fastest supercomputers. IBM's test, performed Sept. 16, also is likely to be outdone by a later score.

The Top500 rankings are updated twice yearly, and new results will be published at the SC2004 supercomputing show in Pittsburgh beginning Nov. 6.

SGI isn't promising it will remain the speed king. "It's clear there are a few horses all making a dash for the finish line," said Dave Parry, senior vice president of SGI's server and platform group. "IBM may scrape up a few more cabinets and do a little more."

Virginia Tech is another organization looking for a little supercomputer glory before the new list is published. The school announced Tuesday that it clocked its upgraded System X machine at 12.25 teraflops.

Columbia uses Itanium 2 processors--a combination of current models that come with 6MB of high-speed cache memory and as-yet-unannounced models with 9MB of cache.

SGI has been struggling to reclaim the prowess and prestige it had in 1990s, when its high-end computers stood out for demanding graphics challenges such as digital animation in the movie "Jurassic Park." But using Intel processors has given the company's equipment a boost, said Walt Brooks, division chief of NASA's Advanced Supercomputing Center--the Itanium machines are six times faster than the SGI models they replace.

SGI's system is different from many clusters of low-end machines that make up most supercomputers today. Columbia is made of twenty 512-processor machines connected with the high-speed InfiniBand networking technology, and each machine runs a single operating system.

That "single-system image" approach is good for tasks such as simulations of the space shuttle's aerodynamics, Brooks said. Clusters can be used for fluid dynamics, "but it's extremely inefficient with those systems and the programming is very difficult," he said.

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