Supercomputing technology to keep tabs on

Many of the nation's top research and scientific institutions are here in Pittsburgh this week for the SC2004 supercomputing conference, showing off their innovations for future high-performance computing. But will any of the supercomputer research and development work spotlighted here ever make its way into corporate IT data centers?

The answer, according to representatives of three of the exhibits on display, is an unequivocal yes.

William W. Thigpen, project manager for the Columbia supercomputing project at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Ames Research Center in California, said that some of the groundbreaking work being done in the project could eventually be used by a number of industries.

With 10,240 Intel Itanium 2 processors, the Silicon Graphics. Altix-based system is touted as the fastest supercomputer used by the U.S. government, capable of up to 42.7 trillion calculations per second. The supercomputer was named in honor of the seven astronauts who died aboard the space shuttle Columbia when it disintegrated in February 2003 while returning to Earth.

The implications for business are real, said Thigpen, because the project has shown that massive computing power can be harnessed using off-the-shelf hardware in less than 120 days, making it a viable option for computationally intensive business IT needs. Twenty 512-processor SGI Altix machines make up the supercomputer.

"It's always the case that high-end computing pushes out the capabilities of computing in the business world," Thigpen said. One of NASA's biggest challenges now is moving large amounts of data between two points, he said, which is also an issue for many businesses. When the research community solves that problem, he said, the technology will likely find its way into corporate computing.

Because the Columbia supercomputer can more quickly run models of the Earth's atmosphere over the centuries, it offers the promise of improved hurricane warnings -- with more accurate tracking and the ability to give nearby residents five days' warning of the deadly storm's approach. That warning time is now just two days.

For NASA itself, the supercomputer can simulate space shuttle launches hundreds of times without the cost of a real launch, giving engineers more dry runs and analytical tools to make space travel safer with improved designs.

Also offering a peek at potential IT innovations is the StorCloud project, an initiative at the SC2004 to showcase high-performance storage technologies that can more closely match the performance of supercomputers.

Bryan Banister, manager of storage systems and production services at the San Diego Supercomputing Center in La Jolla, Calif., and one of the volunteers with the StorCloud project, said the demonstration was designed to show what could be achieved in a short time using off-the-shelf components from numerous manufacturers. This sort of strategy is common among IT users who mix and match products of various vendors, then find ways to make them work together, he said.

For research institutions, massive storage facilities are needed -- the one at SC2004 can handle 800TB of data -- because scientists must mine huge databases of information generated by their work, Banister said. More computing power means an exponential growth in storage needs, he said. "This is kind of an answer to that new need," Banister said.

The storage system on display on the show floor ran with a sustained data-transfer rate of 3GB per second.

Multiple vendors, including Cisco Systems, DataDirect Networks, Dell, EMC, IBM, Linux Networx, Network Appliance, SGI and Platform Computing, worked together to build the proof-of-concept system, he said.

Future Internet technologies such as the Internet 2 project were also on display. Laurie Burns, executive director of the Ann Arbor, said a consortium of more than 200 universities is working to accelerate the development of Internet technologies.

The Internet 2 project, begun by 34 universities in 1996, is seen as a development vehicle for advanced Internet technologies, Burns said.

Corporate IT departments already view the project as promising, she said, and about 50 companies are participating in the initiative. They include Comcast Cable Communications, General Motors, Steelcase, Warner Bros. Entertainment and Johnson & Johnson.

For businesses, the project has promise, Burns said. "Corporate members, like Johnson & Johnson, are looking at it for ways that it will someday change their businesses," she said. That could include faster and more secure research for drug prototyping, where millions of combinations of drugs are tested to create drugs that are more effective against diseases, she said.

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