IBM's Commercial Supercomputer Debuts at DOE

IBM has launched a commercial version of the ASCI White supercomputer it delivered to the US Department of Energy (DOE) this month.

The RS/6000 SP Unix servers, announced last week, feature performance-enhancing copper microprocessors, silicon switching technology and new management software that combine to deliver a multifold improvement over existing models, according to IBM.

Each node on the SP model - the system supports up to 512 nodes - is a 16-processor server based on IBM's 375-MHz Power3 copper-based chips.

Users can start with a four-processor system and scale to more than 8,000 processors .

Connecting the nodes is a superfast 500MB internal switch that delivers a threefold performance gain over the existing switch, IBM said.

Though few commercial users will need to scale to the thousands of processors available with the new technology, the fact that they can should be "very comfortable to those who merely want dozens of nodes and hundreds of processors," said Richard Partridge, an analyst at D.H. Brown Associates Inc. in Port Chester, N.Y. "IBM wants to show everyone they have the biggest and the meanest dog on the block."

New management software allows for dynamic CPU de-allocation, a feature that automatically isolates failed servers from the rest of the system. A Parallel System Support program makes it easier for centralized management of the SP cluster, while an enhanced version of IBM's LoadLeveler software improves failure detection and job scheduling tasks, said IBM.

All of these features are identical to those available on the DOE's supercomputer and should provide commercial users more than enough scalability to run their largest applications, said Michael Kerr, a vice president at IBM.

"For customers, what all of this means is the ability to build very large and robust systems," Kerr said.

Analysts for some time have said they believed that the arrival of systems such as IBM's latest SP servers and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Superdome line of high-end servers, expected later this year, could seriously challenge Sun Microsystems Inc.'s domination of the enterprise Unix server market.

"Sun is doing a fabulous job installing a lot of systems at the high end," Partridge said. "But [systems such as the SP] should put a little more pressure on them to accelerate and force their follow-on to the [E10000]."

Earlier this month, Sun announced quarterly results that easily exceeded analysts' expectations. For its fourth quarter ended June 30, the company reported profit of $US660 million on revenue of $US5 billion, well above the $US395 million in profit on revenue of $US3.5 billion in the same period last year.

Propelling much of Sun's steady growth over the past few years have been sales of its high-end Unix servers, particularly its E10000 servers, which offer significant, though increasingly narrow, performance advantages, over rival systems.

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