Hybrid systems on course to speed corporate apps

Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group, predicted that 40 percent of Fortune 1,000 companies will be using large hybrid computers within five years.

Repsol YPF SA is now working with IBM to build a supercomputer that will help it more clearly image oil reserves buried 30,000 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, said Francisco Ortigosa, director of geophysics at the Madrid-based oil and gas company.

The hybrid system will run a combination of IBM's PowerPC processor and PowerXCell 8i chip, a souped-up version of the Cell processor, Ortigosa said. Slated to be up and running early this fall, the system is expected to have a peak performance of 120 teraflops, which likely would make it one of the top 10 most powerful supercomputers in the world.

"The benefit for the business is significant," Ortigosa said. "The oil business is a business of managing risks. It is very difficult to see the Earth's interior. The clearer the picture, the more accurate the risks can be estimated and the costs reduced."

Analysts note that hybrid computing has slowly to move beyond the supercomputer level to the server level and even to clients, making the technology more attractive to corporate users.

Companies such as Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices are starting to sell graphics processing units, or GPUs, as low-cost accelerators to be combined with general-purpose chips for commercial applications. That effort is "in its infancy," but sales for that purpose will likely pick up in the coming months, Olds said.

On the client side, Toshiba just this month started shipping its first hybrid laptops -- the Qosmio G55 line -- which run a Cell chip and an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and list for under US$2,000. Toshiba has dubbed its version of the Cell chip the Toshiba Quad Core HD processor.

"We've had hybrid computing for some time," noted Jack Dongarra, a professor at the University of Tennessee and a co-creator of the biannual Top500 list of supercomputers. "But there will be a shift [in its use]. The next wave is coming. They're being exposed to more people. The graphics boards are cheap and provide a significant number-crunching advantage."

Whenever you have those two things going for you, it moves interest," he added.

And chip makers are starting to develop new hybrid technologies to take advantage of IT interest.

Intel, for instance, has gotten as far as developing prototypes of hybrid chips -- with two different kinds of processors on one chip.

Jerry Bautista, director of technology management in Intel's microprocessor research lab, said engineers there are working on putting a CPU and an accelerator in the form of, say, an encryption or decryption engine on the same chip.

He added that the market will decide how quickly Intel pushes ahead with the complex project.

AMD, too, is building a single chip containing both a processor and an accelerator. Patricia Harrell, director of stream computing at AMD, noted that its engineers could come up with Opteron and graphics processors on the same chip, or multicores and an accelerator on a single chip.

"We will be talking about mainstream developers taking advantage of a baseline capability in desktop and consumer systems" in five to 10 years, Harrell said. "It will be pervasive."

She said that AMD will likely ship the first such product in late 2009.

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