Supercomputer field opens up

When the Energy Department launches its next competition to build the world's fastest supercomputer, some new vendors will bid for entry into a club that has been dominated by two companies, Silicon Graphics and IBM.

Compaq Computer and Sun Microsystems last week said that they plan to compete for the chance to build a 30 trillion floating-point operations per second (teraflops) supercomputer when DOE issues its request for proposals within the next two to three weeks. Hewlett-Packard also is said to be eyeing the buy.

The project, part of DOE's Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI), represents the next increment in the department's plans to acquire a 100 teraflops supercomputer by 2004. The goal of the program is to obtain systems that are built out of commercial components.

Neither Compaq, nor Sun nor HP, all vendors of high-end workstations and clusters, were contenders in earlier procurement rounds, but recent investments by these companies -- and in the case of Compaq and Sun, research grants from DOE -- have prepared them to compete, company executives and industry observers said. Compaq entered the high-performance computing (HPC) market with its acquisition of Digital Equipment last year.

Any of the three could capture the deal, even against SGI or IBM, because DOE has actively encouraged more diversity in the HPC industry, observers said. "I think the fact they gave us [research and development] funding is recognition of that,'' said Stephen Perrenod, senior business development manager with Sun's Data Center and HPC Product Group.

This time "we will have in place a full program we did not have [in earlier procurements],'' said Jesse Lipcon, vice president and general manager with Compaq's High Performance Servers Division. An HP representative could not be reached for comment.

SGI and IBM currently share the "world's fastest" title. Each company has a 3 teraflops machine installed at a federal laboratory -- SGI at Los Alamos National Laboratory and IBM at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Last year, IBM won a $US85 million contract to build a 10 teraflops machine at Livermore that the company is supposed to deliver next year.

The 30 teraflops system, slated for Los Alamos National Laboratory, is scheduled to be completed in 2002. But Gilbert Weigand, DOE deputy assistant secretary for strategic computing and simulation, said the department is not going to insist that its contractor deliver the full system on a specific day.

After a year of discussions with potential vendors, Weigand said, some "indicated that the time window we originally had gave them a lot of difficulty'' when it came to ensuring that new microprocessors needed for the systems would be available. However, last week the vendors said they would be able to deliver a system on schedule.

The ASCI program was set up to push the nation's HPC vendors to accelerate their plans to build faster systems. DOE is using these systems to simulate the condition of the nation's nuclear stockpile so that the agency does not have to perform live underground tests. How much time it takes to create these systems is important because half of the nuclear weapons experts in DOE will have retired or died by 2004.

Brett Berlin, an HPC consultant who advises federal agencies, said the number of vendors getting into the supercomputing market is growing because companies see a larger market for very high-end systems. With data-mining and knowledge management applications gaining popularity, "the requirements of the commercial world have started to accelerate the overall perception [that there is a] requirement for very high-performance computing,'' he said.

Although no one else is likely to buy a supercomputer as fast as those at DOE, Berlin added, vendors may see ASCI as a way to "marshal the resources'' they need to develop the technology they will later use in lower-priced systems.

Dion Rudnicki, client executive with IBM Global Government Industry, said his company is "actively'' interested in the procurement, but has not yet made a decision to bid. He said the field of competitors would not be a "major factor'' in that decision.

SGI, meanwhile, "has a significant interest'' in the procurement, said spokesman Charlie Rasch. "Competition is good for government and industry,'' he said. "We are confident that the DOE will choose the solution that will optimize its operations and a partner who will be able to get them to 30 [teraflops].''

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