NASA, Navy buy massive supercomputers

U.S. government agencies announced purchases of two large supercomputers last week, including a massive 10,240-processor system for use by NASA that will likely be ranked among the world's most powerful computers.

The NASA system, from Silicon Graphics, is based on Itanium 2 processors running Linux. The other system, an IBM supercomputer purchased by the U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office uses 2,944 Power4+ processors and runs IBM's AIX version of Unix.

The Navy declined to disclose the value of its deal with IBM. NASA's system will cost about US$50 million, somewhat of a bargain price because Intel and SGI, among other vendors, will be studying the system as part of a research agreement, a NASA spokesman said.

The two sales may prompt IDC to slightly increase its high-performance technical computing market numbers in its next forecast, said Chris Willard, an analyst at the Framingham, Mass.-based research company.

IDC last week said that the market for systems used in research and technical computing grew 14 percent to US$5.6 billion last year and will keep growing at an annual rate of 6.5 percent through 2008, when the market is expected to reach US$7.6 billion. Commercial users are typically in the automotive, pharmaceutical, and oil and gas industries.

But the market for the largest systems, such as those purchased by NASA, is due to grow only 2 percent annually until 2008, from US$771 million to US$849 million. "There is only so much money the world is willing to spend on this class of computers," said Willard.

The NASA system, which will be used for space exploration and global warming research, is a very-large-node cluster, made up of 512-processor systems with shared memory and a single instance of the Linux operating system.

InfiniBand I/O technology is being used to connect the 20 512-processor systems that make up the supercomputer, which will be housed at NASA's Ames Research Center. It's expected to be operational in November.

The Navy's IBM supercomputer is a cluster of 368 IBM eServer p655 systems. It's slated to go online in September and will allow the military to run larger and more detailed weather and ocean models, including one that depicts the earth's surface. The supercomputer will also be able to handle more disparate data generated by buoys, satellites and other sources, said Steve Adamec, director of the Naval Oceanographic Office's Major Shared Resource Center at the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

U.S. government agencies tend to buy a variety of supercomputing systems, and Stennis Space Center, where the IBM system will be housed, is indicative of that diversity. In addition to running older IBM systems, the center has systems made by Cray, Sun Microsystems and SGI.

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