Regaining super dominance

DOE's Oak Ridge lab tapped to build world's fastest computer

Efforts must be made for the United States to regain the lead in supercomputing and remain competitive in a global economy, according to government and industry officials who support the latest plan to build the world's fastest computer.

Supercomputers are used for specialized applications that require massive amounts of calculations such as weather forecasting, nuclear energy research and petroleum exploration. However, the high-performance systems could

be used to stimulate production in other industries, enabling companies to bring products to the market faster, experts said.

To that end, Energy Department officials announced earlier this month that they had awarded Oak Ridge National Laboratory a $25 million contract to build a supercomputer during the next five years that can handle 50 teraflops, or 50 trillion calculations per second, which would make it the world's fastest computer. They selected the lab from four proposals received from DOE's nonweapons laboratories.

"Instead of building expensive full-scale models of automobiles or aircraft bodies, industry could [use such a machine to] experiment with new designs and materials on a computer screen by virtually prototyping," Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said at a recent meting of the Council on Competitiveness. "This could save millions, perhaps billions, of dollars and dramatically accelerate time to market."

Winning the global computer race is vital to U.S. productivity and economics, said council President Deborah Wince-Smith, adding that the ability to introduce new products ahead of the competition improves the American quality of life.

"Right now, many in our industrial sector [who] use advanced computing are, for the most part, using it to look at current or yesterday's problems with fast machines," she said. "They're understanding that there is a whole new class of problems."

Supercomputers make competing globally more enticing for U.S. companies hesitant to compete against low-wage economies such as India and China. Supercomputers "collapse the production-realization cycle from the beginning of the conceptual design — whether a toothbrush or advanced drug — to the point where it's actually marketed and distributed," Wince-Smith said.

Japan's Earth Simulator machine, which can sustain operating speeds of 40 trillion calculations per second, is the fastest computer. Because of its capabilities, U.S. scientists likely won't become complacent if Oak Ridge engineers are able to build a 50-teraflop machine. In fact, hitting that rate is just the beginning.

"We think there are some other machines in the works in Japan that may transfer [data] faster," said Ray Orbach, director of DOE's Office of Science. "It's a tricky issue. It's not just the processors' speed. It's also the coupling of the processors to the memory."

The supercomputer, also known as Leadership-Class Computing Capability for Science, will be kept in a new 170,000-square-foot facility with a 400-person staff and 40,000 square feet of space for systems and data storage. The speed of Cray Inc.'s Cray X1 computer at Oak Ridge will increase from 10 teraflops to 20 teraflops this year. By 2006, laboratory officials plan to have a 100-teraflop Cray system with the potential to increase to 250-teraflops in 2007.

The cost of building the supercom-

puter is estimated to be $150 million to $200 million. It will be used by the scientific community, industry, universities, and federal departments and agencies.

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