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Supercomputers Race To Meet Petaflop Challenge

On a spring night in Silicon Valley, IBM executive Nick Donofrio is poised to host a 40th birthday party at the Computer History Museum for the company's world-changing mainframe. That computer--lionized alongside industrial achievements like the Boeing 707 and Model T Ford--helped usher in the U.S. moon shot, automated airline reservations, and Medicare. But an hour before party time, Donofrio, an IBM lifer responsible for commercializing new technology, wants to talk about breaching a technical barrier looming over this decade: Construction of a "petaflop" computer, capable of a staggering 1,000 trillion computations per second--and perhaps equally capable of upending business and science.

IBM, he says, is closer than most people think. "We know a petaflop is a high-water mark, and I want it done," says Donofrio, a senior VP who joined the company in 1967. "We'll achieve a petaflop in 2005 or 2006. We're that close."

A petaflop machine--with a top speed of 1 quadrillion mathematical computations per second (the "flops" stands for floating point operations)--could help engineers virtually prototype entire cars and planes without building costly models, weather forecasters zero in on storms with crackerjack accuracy, traders instantly predict the ripple effect of a stock-price change throughout its sector, and doctors biopsy tissue samples for fast decisions while a patient still lies on the operating-room table.

"If a petaflop was delivered tomorrow, we probably wouldn't know what to do with it. By the end of the decade, we'd probably consume it," says Tom Tecco, director of computer-aided engineering and testing at General Motors Corp. New safety requirements in the United States and overseas prompted GM to install a 9-teraflop IBM supercomputer in April, and the company's teraflop requirements have been increasing at 35% to 50% a year. "I don't see that changing any time soon," Tecco says.

Innovation is essential for U.S. growth, says Wince-Smith, of the Council on Competitiveness

Innovation is essential for U.S. growth, says Wince-Smith, of the Council on Competitiveness.

"We'll reach a petaflop in the next couple of years. We have to--it's a national imperative," says Marshall Peterson. Peterson is best known for assembling the computing apparatus that helped his former company, Celera Genomics, win the race to sequence the human genome in 2000. Now he's chief technology officer for the J. Craig Venter Science Foundation Inc., which owns four nonprofit biotech companies headed by Venter. Peterson says the biotech industry needs the kind of performance that IBM and Cray are building into their next-generation supercomputers to deliver useful products. Peterson expects to get time on the machine at Oak Ridge once it's live. "We want to be able to model cells, tissues, and organisms," he says. "A petaflop won't do that, but it's a start."

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