Four vendors win DOE research pacts

Under $50 million in contracts awarded earlier this month by the Energy Department, four vendors will spend the next four years developing the technology to build supercomputers that are 100 times more powerful than any that exist today.

As part of the DOE program, Digital Equipment Corp., IBM Corp., Silicon Graphics Inc./

Cray Research and Sun Microsystems Inc. will focus on improving the internal communications systems in supercomputers, paving the way for supercomputer users to link thousands of processors together.

The project, called ASCI Pathforward, is part of DOE's Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative. DOE needs these advanced supercomputers to simulate tests of nuclear weapons, making it possible to comply with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would end live underground nuclear tests.

Rather than build special computers, DOE wants to purchase systems that are commercially available, so the department is paying vendors to incorporate its requirements into their products several years earlier than any of the firms had planned. Gilbert Weigand, DOE's deputy assistant secretary for strategic computing and simulation, said the Pathforward approach will allow the department to "build on the U.S. industry strength'' by accelerating investments that companies would eventually make anyway.

"We're really going to build these computers out of the volume products of the U.S. computer industry,'' Weigand said.

"We will respond to market needs and the business return on investment," said Bill

Blake, the director of high-performance technical computing with Digital, which received an $11 million award. But vendors do not yet see demand from enough customers to justify making the investment in systems that are as fast as DOE wants.

"This allows us to really change the rules around how we invest,'' Blake said.

David Turek, the director of development for IBM Corp.'s RS/6000 SP line of high-performance computers, said accelerating product development is also necessary now because DOE needs to capture the knowledge of nuclear weapons experts for its mathematical models before these scientists die or retire from government service. Current computers are not powerful enough to run such complex simulations, which take into account not only what happens when a warhead explodes but also the effects of age and environmental conditions on nuclear stockpiles at storage sites.

Interconnecting Technology

The goal of ASCI is to build supercomputers capable of 100 trillion floating-point operations per second— or 100 teraflops— by 2004; such an effort would require systems that link several thousand processors.

The Pathforward awards focus on interconnect technology because one of the main barriers to faster performance is the time it takes to pass instructions and data among multiple processors. The largest multiprocessor computers today contain 512 processors.

Each company will take a different approach to the problem, depending on the specific improvements its products need. Vendors may focus on improving the bandwidth available to their systems to allow more data to move through the system at once, or they may put more effort into decreasing system latency, which is the time it takes to move data from one place to another.

Weigand said vendors would employ a variety of techniques— for example, replacing system buses with switches or migrating to optical-based systems.

SGI/Cray plans to use the $5 million it will receive to develop better signaling technology that would expand the bandwidth of its systems, both internally and between devices, said Bruce Steger, the hardware program manager for the company's Technical Computing Division.

Focus on Improving Switches

IBM's Turek said his company would focus on improving the switches it uses in its systems. Turek would not say how much money IBM would be paid for this research, but based on the value of the other three contracts, the firm will get $23 million— the largest award.

Digital plans to demonstrate that it can link together 256 of its Alpha reduced instruction-set computing processors two years earlier than it otherwise would have.

Sun executives could not be reached for comment before press time. A press release issued by the company said Sun would use its $11 million contract to "validate and verify the scaling'' of its future system architecture.

As with most computing advances, these planned improvements in today's high-

performance computers are expected to trickle down to more modest machines.

Gary Smaby, president of market research firm Smaby Group, said ASCI is like the "Formula One racing team inside a major automobile company. If you're building a Formula One Ford, you want to hope that someday that [technology] will find its way into the Taurus.''

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