PC-era moxie lives anew at supercomputer show

Peta this, peta that, it's all my system is bigger than your system

There's a lot that goes into making a supercomputer: wires, silicon and testosterone. It's like the PC era, especially in the 1990s, when vendors couldn't wait to boast about the latest performance gain.

You can find that aggressive, eye-twinkling energy again at the supercomputing's annual show here, SC07. The booths are big, the crowds are big and the boasts are epic.

When vendors were asked at a forum here when they would deliver the long-awaited petascale system, Frank Baetke, global high-performance technology manager for Hewlett-Packard, said "in the next couple of years."

Said Leo Suarez, vice president of Deep Computing at IBM: "I think you'll see from IBM next year, petaflop machines." And not just one petaflop machine, "you will probably see several petaflop machines."

So there you have it sports fans. Not one but several petascale systems, anyone of which would be roughly twice the power of the world's most powerful system operating today.

Of course, IBM can boast, because today it sits on the top of the latest Top500 list, released Monday, with its BlueGene/L System that's used by the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration. That system has about half a petaflop of power. A petaflop is the equivalent of 1,000 trillion floating-point operations per second.

Vendors, including Silicon Graphics, Sun Microsystems, all say petascale systems are possible with the architectures they have built and it's more a question of customers paying for them.

But in a few years petascale will be old news, such is the pace of development of these systems.

Erich Strohmaier, one of the authors of the Top500 and a researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said that today, the minimum performance requirement for a computer to make the Top500 list is at least 6 teraflops. But if growth rates continue at their exponential pace then by 2015 the last system on the Top500 list will be at least a petaflop.

"Only eight years from now you are going to have to have a petaflop system to be on the list," said Strohmaier.

Put another way, the level of performance of the number one system on the Top500 list may not be powerful enough in six to eight years to be on the list. Consequently, users spend millions on a systems only to replace in a matter of a few years. "They are typically used between three and five years," said Strohmaier.

But life could get interesting again for PC users who today have resigned themselves to limit their excitement to iPhones, not laptops.

It takes about eight to 10 years for a supercomputer performance to reach the desktop level. That means today's number one system may be something, that in a decade, you will carry around your home and "play games with," said Strohmaier.

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