GM picks IBM for new top supercomputer

General Motors (GM) is building what it says will be the automotive industry's fastest supercomputer by tying together scores of IBM Corp. 655 pSeries servers.

The system will offer a maximum performance of about 9T flops (teraflops, or trillion floating point operations per second), more than double the capacity of GM's current computing system, which was also supplied by IBM, GM representatives said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday. The system will help the carmaker reduce development time and costs, the representatives said.

The system will be powerful enough to earn a spot in the Top 10 most powerful supercomputers worldwide, said Jonathan Eunice, principal analyst at Illuminata Inc., in Nashua, New Hampshire. "Nine teraflops is a big, big system," he said.

GM is taking delivery now of 128 pSeries 655 systems, each with eight 1.7GHz Power4+ processors, and 16 pSeries 655 systems, each with four of the Power4+ processors, said Frank Roney, managing director of the GM account at IBM. The system will be expanded later this year with additional IBM servers based on its new Power5 processors, he said.

For competitive reasons, GM declined to say how many Power5-based servers it plans to add to the system or how it is tying the servers together. "That would get a level of detail on the street that would not be an advantage to GM," said Chris Perry, a GM spokesman.

Over the past decade, crash testing has become the largest user of computing power at GM. By relying on virtual crash tests, the carmaker has been able to reduce the number of tests involving real vehicles by 85 percent, said Terry Kline, global product development process information officer at GM. "About 80 percent of the computing power goes toward crash and safety analysis," he said.

At a cost of US$500,000 per vehicle crash test, savings thanks to virtual testing add up quickly, said Robert Kruse, executive director of vehicle integration at GM. With the new IBM system, the time it takes to do some crash simulations can be reduced to one day from three days, he said.

GM still does about 1,200 crash tests a year involving actual automobiles, partly because real tests are needed for government certification of the vehicles, company officials said.

According to the November 2003 list of the top 500 supercomputers, the Earth Simulator in Japan is currently the fastest machine, with a peak performance of 40.9T flops. Computers on the list are ranked by the maximum number of flops achieved during a benchmark test.

"The pSeries 655 is a sufficiently dense system that many datacenters have to reinforce their floors to bring it in. It is more computing per cubic inch than the average mainframe or big server from most of the vendors," Illuminata's Eunice said.

The servers will be housed at GM's datacenter in Michigan, and hardware service and maintenance will be provided by IBM. Financial details of the deal were not disclosed, though IBM has said in the past that a pSeries 655 with eight 1.7-GHz Power4+ processors, 1G-byte of memory and two 36.4G-byte disk drives starts at about US$70,000.

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