Top supercomputer race continues with NASA/SGI box

The space race may be over, but engineers at NASA's (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's) Ames Research Center on Tuesday staked their claim in another type of challenge: the never-ending contest to build the world's fastest supercomputer.

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the NASA supercomputing facility in Moffett Field, California, the U.S. space agency unveiled its 10,240 processor Linux-based supercomputer, named Columbia, and cited benchmark numbers that show it performing faster than any other system.

Built in cooperation with Silicon Graphics (SGI) and Intel over the last four months, Columbia has achieved a sustained performance of 42.7 trillion calculations, or teraflops, as measured by the Linpack benchmark used to rank the bi-annual Top 500 list of supercomputers. This result puts it ahead of both Japan's Earth Simulator, which was benchmarked at 35.86 teraflops in June, and IBM's Blue Gene system, which was benchmarked at 36.01 teraflops last month.

NASA's 42.7 teraflop benchmark was achieved using only 16 of the 20 512-processor Altix systems that SGI built for the system, officials said. A benchmark number based on Columbia's full performance will be released in early November at the SC 2004 high performance computing conference in Pittsburgh.

The system is already being used for a variety of tasks at NASA, including hurricane prediction and analyzing data from the more than 60 space probes that the agency currently operates throughout the solar system.

Columbia, which is able to simulate phenomenon to a detail unmatched by NASA's current systems, will also play a critical role in performing the simulations required to resume space shuttle missions, NASA officials said. Shuttle missions were halted after the supercomputer's namesake, the Space Shuttle Columbia, broke apart during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003, killing the vehicle's seven crew members.

"All of the simulations for the redesigned shuttles are being done on these systems," said G. Scott Hubbard, director at NASA Ames.

Officials at the ribbon cutting also cited national and regional interests as the impetus behind the system. Hubbard said that the Columbia was remarkable not only for the speed at which it was built, but for the speed at which it managed to clear the political hurdles required to secure funding. "Thanks to a lot of people, that all happened in a month," he said. "Can you imagine moving the entire government in 30 days?"

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