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HP joins race to build largest supercomputer

The US Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has ordered a $24.5m (£16.9m) Linux-based supercomputer from Hewlett-Packard for advanced chemistry research.

The system will consist of 1,400 64-bit Intel Itanium processors and will deliver a peak performance of 8.3 trillion floating-point operations per second (Tflops) and a sustained performance of around 6.8 Tflops.

The supercomputer is to be installed during the next 12 months and will be used in studies involving biological systems, subsurface transport, material design, atmospheric chemistry and combustion. Installation will begin with the arrival of Intel's McKinley chip later this year.

The HP system will replace an IBM supercomputer that the lab purchased in 1997, said Dave Dixon, associate director for theory, modelling and simulation at the William Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at the Washington-based national laboratory. That system was the 12th fastest supercomputer in the world when it was installed but now ranks around 190, Dixon said.

In contrast, if HP installed the new Linux-based system today, it would rank among the top supercomputers in the world, Dixon said.

"This system is about 30 times faster, holds 10 times as much memory and has 50 times more disk space as the current but quite old supercomputer," he said. When fully installed, the system will have 1.8Tbytes of memory and 170Tbytes of disk space.

HP is basing its design on a high-speed, high-bandwidth interconnect technology called QS Net 2 from Bristol, UK-based Quadrics Supercomputers World.

Quadrics' technology is also being used by Compaq Computer to build supercomputers. For example, a Tflops supercomputer that Compaq is installing at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center is based on Quadrics interconnects.

With this announcement, HP joins its other major rivals in the race to build the world's largest supercomputers over the next two years.

IBM is installing a 4 Tflops Unix supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. The 800-processor Oak Ridge system is based on IBM's Power4 processor technology and will be used to study long-range climate trends and to conduct molecular biology studies and experiments involving nanoscale technologies.

Meanwhile, the Sandia National Laboratories and Celera Genomics Group in the US are working on a long-term $150m project with Compaq to build the world's largest Linux supercomputer.

The system - an early prototype of which will become available only in 2004 - is being designed for use in complex applications in the fields of computational biology and life sciences. That system is expected to deliver performance ranging between 100tn and 150tn floating point operations per second and is expected to use 10,000 to 20,000 of Compaq's Alpha processors.

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