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Tech U: The Real Big Apple

In the southwestern reaches of Virginia, a cluster of Apple computers at Virginia Tech University processes complex research queries at speeds of 12.25 teraflops per second. That's equal to about 6 billion human beings simultaneously (and miraculously) calculating 2,000 mathematical equations using decimals in less than a second, says Jason Lockhart, director of high-performance computing and technology innovation at the university's College of Engineering.

The supercomputer, called System X, is built with 1,100 custom-built Apple Xserve G5 cluster nodes, each with dual 2.3-GHz PowerPC 970FX G5 processors, 4 GB of ECC RAM, and 80 GB of SATA storage. It cost $6.8 million to build and an $10 million to renovate the facility housing it, but System X put Virginia Tech on the computing map: It's the 20th most-powerful computer system in the world, according to the most recent list of Top 500 Supercomputer Sites, a bi-annual ranking (see, and it's one of only two supercomputers in the Top 20 built using Apple gear.

Why would an educational institution put so many resources into a supercomputer? There may be some bragging rights involved, but the main goal is attracting top talent.

Tech University

We went back to school at universities nationwide and found cutting-edge networking, wireless, and security projects that businesses would do well to study.

Introduction: Tomorrow's IT Challenges Today
Network Infrastructure: Research on the Rails

Wireless: Compressed Air
Security: Taming the Masses
Messaging & Collaboration: The World Is Our Campus
Enterprise Apps: Sims on Steroids
Storage & Servers: The Real Big Apple

"System X has allowed us to attract higher-caliber researchers," Lockhart says. "We've filled openings within physics, chemistry, biochemistry, computer science and engineering." The supercomputer is used for advanced research in molecular dynamics, computational chemistry and computational fluid dynamics.

The university completed a prototype of the supercomputer using off-the-shelf Apple Power Mac G5 desktops in November 2003. The current version, built by a team of Virginia Tech and Apple volunteers using Apple's Xserve technology, was finished in August 2004. After benchmark tests and tuning, System X went live in January 2005.

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