Energy shoots for 100 teraFLOPS by 2004

It's 100 teraFLOPS or bust.

That's how President Clinton described the government's quest for more powerful,
high-performance computers when he unveiled the Energy Department's PathForward program
earlier this month.

Speaking before a group of scientists and researchers at Energy's Los Alamos National
Laboratory in New Mexico, Clinton said the PathForward team by 2004 would build a computer
with a processing power of 100 trillion floating-point operations per second. The
president earmarked $517 million in his fiscal 1999 budget proposal to help Energy reach
that goal.

"By 2001, they'll be able to perform more calculations in a second than a human
being with a handheld calculator could perform in 30 million years," Clinton said.

The program is part of the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative, which includes
using high-performance computers to calculate the condition and deterioration of nuclear
materials in America's weapons stockpile.

Scientists also want to use the computers to model nuclear blasts in real time, which
would give the United States an alternative to live tests.

Immediately following Clinton's announcement, Energy Secretary Federico F. Pena said
the department would meet the speed goal.

"The Energy Department and its national laboratories are proud to rise to
President Clinton's challenge to develop technologies necessary to certify confidence in
the safety and reliability of the enduring nuclear weapons stockpile," Pena said.

Energy awarded four companies--Digital Equipment Corp., IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems
Inc. and Cray Research Inc.--$50 million contracts to design and build the fast machines.

A 100-teraFLOPS computer is still a drawing-board concept. Intel Corp. recently built a
1-teraFLOPS computer with 9,000 Pentium processors.

During a supercomputer exhibition, Cray announced that it had built a 2.5-teraFLOPS
machine. It plans to finish building a 3-teraFLOPS computer by next year.

The 100-teraFLOPS computer would, like the Intel machine, be built with commercial
hardware, including thousands of processors, officials said.

But unlike the Intel machine, Energy officials said, the 100-teraFLOPS computer would
be limited by existing processor technology. One solution: Link 30-teraFLOPS computers to
achieve 100-TeraFLOPS performance.

The PathForward team estimates that it will spend much of the research funding on
scaling and interconnectivity technologies.

Energy might also try to build an operating system that would run across linked
30-teraFLOPS machines without slowing them down.

Clinton said a 100-teraFLOPS computer would likely convince Congress to ratify the
Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that the president sent to Congress last fall.

The treaty prohibits its signers from live nuclear weapons tests, but the 100-teraFLOPS
computer would run models that simulate the tests.

Pena said the U.S. missile stockpile recently passed its annual safety inspection. But
without fast computers to run simulations measuring the effects of entropy on the
stockpile, the nation might have to fall back on live tests.

Three labs will do PathForward research: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in
California, and Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.

Shortly after the president's announcement, Energy said it would award IBM an $85
million contract to build a 10-teraFLOPS computer by 2000. An earlier schedule had called
for a 3-teraFLOPS computer by 2000.

IBM officials said they would base the 10-teraFLOPS computer on an IBM RS/6000 machine.
To achieve 10-teraFLOPS speed, IBM must increase the RS/6000's performance tenfold, an IBM
spokesman said.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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