DOE picks Intel to Build teraflops machine

By the end of 1996, the Energy Department's Sandia National
Laboratory plans to hit one of supercomputing's big targets: 1 trillion floating-point
operations per second.


Sandia has a $46 million agreement with Intel Corp. to build a teraflops machine
containing more than 9,000 CPUs. It will be Intel's first supercomputer based on the new
P6 chip, soon to succeed the popular Pentium once known as the P5.


The Albuquerque, N.M., lab, a long-time Intel shop, already has the world's largest
Intel Paragon supercomputer and holds the record for parallel processing power. Cray
Research Inc. spokesman Steve Conway said his company competed for the Sandia contract.
IBM Corp. and nCube Corp. also submitted proposals.


The P6 machine has two hurdles to jump. First, Intel's Paragon architecture has always
used specialized i860 processors. But the P6 is a common PC chip, not designed primarily
for reduced-instruction-set computing.


Second, getting 9,000 of the processors to work in concert will be tough. Highly
customized software is essential because that many processors typically go unused
otherwise.


"We've developed quite a bit of expertise in load balancing," said Subip
Dosenjh, manager of Sandia's Parallel Computational Sciences Department. He said the lab
has licensed its parallel, load balancing software to other users.


Even with good load balancing, teraflops performance may prove unreachable except in a
very few applications. Sandia will dedicate the machine to simulation tests of nuclear
weapons. It's unlikely to achieve anything close to teraflops performance with, say,
conventional database software.


Victor Reis, assistant secretary of Energy for energy programs, said the P6 machine
represents a first step in "a 10-year program to advance the state of
high-performance computing to meet national security objectives."


Dosenjh said the lab is moving from testing-based nuclear research to computer-based
research that requires huge amounts of simulation power.


About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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