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Indian American designs world's 3rd fastest supercomputer

By Seema Hakhu Kachru in Houston
November 09, 2003 18:47 IST
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Scientists led by a 30-year-old Indian American have amazed the computing industry by putting together the world's third fastest supercomputer in a record time of three months, and at record low cost of $5.2 million, using off-the-shelf components.

Most other machines of its class cost upward of $40 million and take years to assemble. Japan's Earth Simulator, the number one supercomputer, is said to have cost at least $350 million.

The Terascale Cluster project is bringing Virginia Tech to the forefront in the supercomputing arena. "This is arguably the cheapest supercomputer and is definitely the most powerful home-built supercomputer," according to the system's architect assistant professor of computer science Dr Srinidhi Varadarajan.

The supercomputer, made from 1,100 dual-processor Power Mac G5s, nicknamed by some as 'Big Mac' ranks third among the world's 500 fastest supercomputers, many of which handle with ease one trillion calculations per second.

Theoretically, Big Mac could handle a potential 17 teraflops, or 17 trillion operations per second.

The 5,000-plus processors of the Earth Simulator keep it on top with 35.8 teraflops, with the potential of another five teraflops. This is followed by two other supercomputers -- at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, both dedicated to weapons design.

Varadarajan says, "The newly completed supercomputer operates at 9.55 trillion operations a second, or 9.55 teraflops". The latest number will not go lower, and may go even higher, he adds. System optimisation is nearly finished, but "we still have a few more tricks," he says. "We're hoping for a 10 per cent boost, hopefully shortly."

"Our goal at the Terascale Computing Facility is to build a world-class supercomputer to enable big science and engineering research at a price well below any comparable centre," Varadarajan says noting, "We expect this facility to be a powerful model for universities around the world to emulate."

According to Varadarajan, "it all started when the school wrote for a grant to build a new machine to replace a 200-node system, which was becoming too small for its computing needs."

When the proposal was being finalised, Apple came out with its new 64-bit G-5 Mac which the team found to its liking. The new dean of Virginia Tech gave permission to proceed to build the supercomputer during his first day on the job.

Varadarajan ordered the G5s three days after Apple Computer announced them and key software was written in a matter of weeks.

In addition to the G5, Varadarajan had also considered using Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron and Intel's Itanium II processors. "But the Opteron was too expensive and the Itanium too slow."

He received quotes from Dell and a couple of other PC manufacturers, whose prices ranged between $10-12 million. "Then Apple announced the G5," Varadarajan said.

"They (Apple) were in a bit of a shock," he says. "They assumed I was some kind of Mac fan, but I'd never used a Mac before."

The cluster was assembled in less than a month by hundreds of student volunteers who were paid only in soda and pizza for their labour. They ate between 600 and 700 pizzas, Varadarajan estimates.

According to dean of the Virginia Tech's College of Engineering, Prof Hassan Aref, "The people working this groundbreaking project pulled off miracles, raising glass ceilings and opening locked doors."

The Top 500 is a twice-a-year listing started in 1993 to provide a Who's Who of hot computers, spotting and tracking trends in high-performance computing. The ranking by the Top 500 project will be officially announced later in November at the Supercomputing Conference in Phoenix.
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Seema Hakhu Kachru in Houston
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