Companies Snare DoE Supercomputer Contracts

Companies Snare DoE Supercomputer Contracts

By Nick Wakeman
Staff Writer

IBM Corp. has won an $85 million contract from the Department of Energy to build the world's fastest computer.

The Armonk, N.Y.-based company's Feb. 12 award is part of a larger Department of Energy effort to build a supercomputer that can simulate live testing of nuclear weapons.

By 2000, IBM is slated to deliver a computer that can process 10 trillion operations per second. Currently, the fastest supercomputers reach speeds of about 3 trillion operations per second.

Last week's IBM award is part of the department's Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI) to develop a supercomputer capable of 100 trillion operations per second by 2004.

Earlier this month, the Energy Department awarded a series of contracts under ASCI totaling $50 million to IBM and three other computer companies to develop the switching and interconnectivity needed to develop the 100 trillion operations per second supercomputer. Switching and connectivity are important elements because the supercomputers are built by linking thousands of computer processors.

Receiving the switching and interconnectivity contracts were: Digital Equipment Corp., Maynard, Mass.; Silicon Graphics Inc., Mountain View, Calif.; and Sun Microsystems Inc., also of Mountain View.

These PathForward contracts are a key part of the agency's Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative. The supercomputers will enable the United States to comply with a treaty awaiting approval by the U.S. Senate that bans the testing of nuclear weapons.

The work is being coordinated through the Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories.

The four-year PathForward contracts varied in value. IBM received $24 million while Sun and Digital were awarded $11 million apiece. Silicon Graphics will receive $5 million.

Without this investment from the Department of Energy, development of the more capable supercomputers would not be possible by 2004, said executives with the computer companies.

While the nation ultimately will benefit from safer and less costly testing of nuclear weapons, the four computers makers will get new supercomputing technologies that can be applied to a variety of applications in both the commercial and government markets.

"The Department of Energy is accelerating the rate and pace of technology entering the marketplace," said David Turek, director of development of RS/6000 SP for IBM. "DoE has to make an investment because computer companies would develop the technology at a much slower pace if left to commercial market demands."

"There is a sustainable marketplace for these models that guarantees the government will have support, upgrades, and more research and development in the future."
-Mark Goldman
Silicon Graphics/Cray Research

An important feature of the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative project is that contractors must rely on commercially available products rather than devise a government-only solution, said Mark Goldman, director of business planning for technical computing at Silicon Graphics/Cray Research, Eagan, Minn.

That stipulation ensures that the government will not have to worry about long-term support, Goldman said. "There is a sustainable marketplace for these models that guarantees the government will have support, upgrades, and more research and development in the future," he said.

The computing capability sought by the Energy Department tracks closely with what the contractors are developing on their own, said Bill Blake, director of high-performance and technical computing for Digital. But "this pushes us about two years ahead of schedule," he said.

John Leahy, group manager of government affairs for Sun Microsystems Federal, said that technology stemming from the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative program can be applied across entire product lines.

Industry executives agreed that the applications for more powerful supercomputers are wide-ranging.

Electronic commerce, data mining and decision-support applications are areas in which IBM is interested in applying the technology it develops for the DoE, Turek said.

Other areas that will benefit from the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative project include weather forecasting, economic analysis and battlefield support, he said.

"I see real practical benefits," Goldman said.

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