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U.S. Wins In Supercomputer Wars

Two years after losing their technical lead in the supercomputing race, U.S. manufacturers reclaimed preeminence in the field last week, as systems designed by IBM and Silicon Graphics Inc. for government contracts were named the world's fastest.

IBM's Blue Gene/L, being installed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, is now the world's fastest computer, capable of a staggering 70.72 trillion computations per second. That's double the capacity of the previous fastest system, the Japanese government's Earth Simulator, installed by NEC in Yokohama, Japan, in 2002 and capable of sustaining 35.86 trillion floating point operations per second. The Earth Simulator, which stunned technologists in the U.S. government and industry when it claimed the mantle of world's fastest, slipped to No. 3 on a closely watched list of the world's 500 fastest supercomputers assembled by a group of computer scientists.

No. 2 on the new Top 500 list released earlier this week is SGI's Columbia system at NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. That system can sustain 51.87 teraflops. The results were achieved on the Linpack benchmark, which involves solving a complex series of mathematical equations, and released at a supercomputing conference held in Pittsburgh last week.

"The U.S. is No. 1 and No. 2 on the Top 500--that's clearly the top story," says Steve Wallach, a longtime supercomputer designer who is now a VP of technology at Chiaro Networks Ltd., which makes a high-speed optical router.

U.S. technology is progressing rapidly--IBM says it's on track to quadruple the size of the Blue Gene/L system it's assembling for Livermore to achieve a benchmark result of 360 teraflops by next year, 10 times as fast as the Earth Simulator. And U.S. manufacturers could reach a petaflop of performance--one quadrillion operations per second--by 2008 or sooner. "This is really certifying the vitality of the American computer manufacturers," says Thom Dunning, the incoming director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Illinois. "It's important to note that it was done by two vendors using two very different paths." IBM's system uses more than 32,000 embedded processors designed for low power and fast, on-chip data movement, whereas SGI has built fast interconnections between more than 10,000 Intel Itanium processors. Both approaches could yield more affordable computing power.

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