Firm pushes low-cost supercomputer alternative

A math coprocessor from ClearSpeed Technology Ltd. could become a low-cost way of building or upgrading supercomputer clusters.

The British vendor, based in Bristol, claims the multithreaded array processor embedded on a PCI card is cheaper and more energy-efficient than standard processors for heavy number-crunching jobs. The ClearSpeed CS301 card can do supercomputer tasks such as weather modeling and visualization, as well as smaller desktop jobs that researchers now must schedule on larger systems, said Tom Beese, ClearSpeed's chief executive officer.

The card processes up to 25.6 billion floating-point operations per second, compared with the Pentium 4's 12-GFLOPS maximum. The Pentium 4 consumes 70 watts to 90 watts of power, whereas the CS301 averages 2.5 watts, Beese said.

Installing multiple CS301 cards in a server reduces the number of servers needed to build a supercomputing cluster, Beese said. A 1.2-TFLOPS system with 2.8-GHz Dell PowerEdge 6600 four-way servers costing about $27,200 each would total $680,000. ClearSpeed's alternative would be two Dell servers with 22 ClearSpeed dual-coprocessor cards, each costing about $6,600, for the same processing power at about $199,600.

Beese estimated the first Dell cluster would consume 15 kilowatts, while the ClearSpeed alternative would consume 1.4 kilowatts. The downside, however, would be porting applications to the new architecture and optimizing them to take advantage of the coprocessors. The card comes with a software development kit, C compiler, graphical debugger, and supporting tools such as drivers for Linux and Microsoft Windows.

The company is marketing the cards directly to end users, as well as courting system builders to use its modules. In addition to serving as x86-based coprocessors, the chips can also be embedded in other equipment, such as imagery subsystems for unmanned aerial vehicles, Beese said.

"Visual information could be processed on board instead of being sent back," he said.

ClearSpeed is not the only company hoping to grab a piece of the supercomputing market with low-cost coprocessors. IBM Corp., Sony Corp. and Toshiba America Inc. are collaborating on a coprocessing chip code-named Cell for release in 2006.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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