DARPA funds hardware adaptability

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has given three high-performance computer manufacturers a total of $146.1 million to design more adaptable systems for future national security needs.

In the second phase of DARPA's High-Productivity Computing Systems program, Cray Inc. of Seattle, IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. will vie in a three-year development of prototypes for a new kind of supercomputer by 2010.

The first phase attracted five participants, but DARPA passed over Hewlett-Packard Co. and SGI for the second round of the program.

'All the contractors developed revolutionary architecture concepts,' DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker said. Three finalists were selected for the second phase because their preliminary concepts presented the 'best value to the government,' she said.

DARPA wants future high-end systems to be easier to program and have much more I/O and memory bandwidth than today's supercomputing clusters.

Cray and subsidiary New Technology Endeavors Inc. received $43.1 million for developing new processor architectures, processor-in-memory technology and software models. Cray's effort is code-named Cascade.

IBM got $53.3 million for Productive, Easy-to-use, Reliable Computing Systems, or PERCS. The goal is to make supercomputers more adaptable, power-efficient and cost-effective.

'Most of the expense today is in the software, not the hardware,' said Mootaz Elnozhay, manager of IBM research's systems software unit.

Adapts to fit software

High-end hardware generally is optimized for particular applications, which fragments the market, Elnozhay said. PERCS will seek ways to make system software adapt itself and the hardware it runs on for multiple applications.

Twelve universities and the Energy Department's Los Alamos National Laboratory are assisting in PERCS, Elnozhay said.

Sun received $49.7 million for its Hero single-system architecture, which would simplify the cumbersome programming of clustered systems, said Mike Vildibill, Sun's director of government programs. In conjunction with the prototype work, Vildibill and Elnozhay said, the companies will adapt their cutting-edge technologies to the server market.

MIT Lincoln Laboratory of Lexington, Mass., will assess the three vendors' results. Then DARPA will choose at least one of the second-phase participants to build a full-scale system in the third phase, which is set to begin in mid-2006, Walker said.

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