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Nasa to build 10,000-processor Linux computer

US space agency Nasa plans to build the largest ever supercomputer based on Silicon Graphics's 512-processor Altix computers.

The 10,240-processor system, called Project Columbia, will be used by researchers at the Advanced Supercomputing Facility at Nasa. It will used to design equipment, simulate future space missions and model weather patterns.

What makes Project Columbia unique is the size of the multiprocessor Linux systems, or nodes, that it clusters together. It is common for supercomputers to be built of thousands of two-processor nodes, but the Ames system uses SGI's Numalink switching technology and ProPack Linux operating system enhancements to connect 512-processor nodes, each of which will have more than 1,000Gbytes of memory.

The Altix nodes will use Intel's Itanium 2 microprocessors, and the entire 20-node system is expected to be fully assembled by year's end, said Jeff Greenwald, senior director of server product marketing with SGI.

SGI has used this large-node technology to build a number of smaller Altix systems with between 3,000 and 6,000 processors, but Project Columbia will be the largest to date, he said.

Columbia's large-node, shared-memory architecture works well for Nasa's "tightly coupled" weather and space simulation applications, where a lot of inter-processor communication is required, said Bill Thigpen, manager of Project Columbia.

The downside to the large-node architecture is that if a single processor fails, the entire 512-node system goes out of service, he said.

The first node of Project Columbia, named Kalpana, was built by Ames researchers last autumn. Since then, two more nodes have been added, and Nasa and SGI will spend the next five months assembling the next 17 nodes.

With the next version of SGI's NumaLink technology, Project Columbia will be able to share memory across 2,048 processors, Thigpen said.

Robert McMillan writes for IDG News Service


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