DOD centers boost super power

Two new supercomputers purchased for $12 million by the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, will nearly double the peak computing capacity at the center's computer lab.

Two systems, an IBM Corp. RS/6000 SP with the company's new Power 3 processors and a Compaq Computer Corp. AlphaServer ES40, will be used to simulate defense-related research projects ranging from advanced microchip designs to aerospace vehicles.

"Current capability requires that an engineer make simplifying assumptions about either the geometry or the physics [of a vehicle] in order to simulate a complex warfighting system," said Hugh Thornburg, who heads research in computational fluid dynamics at the center. "[As capacity increases], these assumptions can be gradually eliminated and simulations performed with a higher degree of fidelity."

Meanwhile, the Army Research Laboratory, Aberdeen, Md., is going through a $15 million upgrade of its supercomputers. The lab plans to augment two Silicon Graphics Inc. Origin 2000 systems, purchase two Cray Scalable Vector (SV) 1 systems, upgrade a Sun Microsystems Inc. Enterprise HPC 10000 computer and add three other Sun machines to its inventory.

Part of Larger Plan

The ASC and ARL purchases provide scheduled upgrades to systems that are part of the Defense Department's High-Performance Computing Modernization Program. Two other DOD major shared resource centers, the Army Corps of Engineers Waterways Experiment Station and the Naval Oceanographic Office, announced upgrades to their supercomputers earlier this year [FCW, March 8].

The new computers at ASC will boost the lab's top computing capacity to 640 billion floating-point operations per second (gigaflops), which is equivalent to the processing power found in 1.28 million Pentium 150 MHz PCs. The systems join an earlier-generation IBM SP and two systems from Silicon Graphics.

ARL's computing capacity will rise from 195 gigaflops to 515 gigaflops.

Now all the supercomputers at ASC are scalable parallel systems, which are programmed to distribute pieces of an application among many processors. ASC retired its only vector-based system, a Cray C90 supercomputer, last month.

ASC's lab is among many customers that have been turning away from vector technology, in which the computer processes one part of an application at a time, because scalable parallel systems built from commodity parts are less expensive.

ASC began acceptance testing of the new IBM system earlier this month and expects delivery of the Compaq AlphaServer ES40 this summer.

Donna Klecka, deputy program manager with Nichols Research Corp., the integrator that runs the ASC supercomputer site, said the Compaq machine will run some of the vector-based software that users still rely on while providing a platform for scalable parallel applications. "A lot of the vendors are moving away from vector systems," and Nichols chose to buy systems that reflected that trend, Klecka said.

Nevertheless, "you're talking about a cultural change for a lot of people," she said. So the company made an effort to ensure that users could migrate their software from the Cray system to the Compaq system and to ensure that vector systems at other DOD labs can be used to run applications that are not supported by the new computer.

ARL, in contrast, decided to maintain vector-processing capacity on site with its buy of the SV-1 systems. "This decision allows us to preserve our previous investment,'' said Tony Pressley, acting director of the ARL major shared resource center, who also said the current vector systems there are well-used.

The ASC deal for Compaq represents the firm's first supercomputer sale to the DOD HPC Modernization Program, which has fielded only systems from IBM and SGI. To date, none of DOD's major shared resource centers, which operate the most powerful research computers in the department, had purchased high-performance systems from Digital Equipment Corp., which is now owned by Compaq.

But Compaq has been moving into the high-end computing market, thanks in part to new processor interconnect technology developed under an Energy Department research contract. The AlphaServer ES40 system uses this technology.

"Federal customers requiring high-performance technical computing need solutions that will improve speed, performance and reliability while reducing costs," said Tom Simmons, director of DOD sales for Compaq Federal.

"Compaq's state-of-the-art Alpha technology and highly scalable clustered architecture more than satisfy these requirements while offering unparalleled performance with maximum flexibility," he added.


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