GCN INSIDER: Trends and technologies that affect the way government does IT

Cray out loud: Cray Inc. has high hopes for its supercomputer line, but worries about U.S. commitment to supercomputing.

Next-gen supercomputer

Even if Cray Inc. never sold another supercomputer (unlikely given the seven orders it says it's taken for the new X1E, introduced last month), the company deserves credit for continually arguing the importance of high-performance computing. Cray is sometimes overshadowed by companies such as IBM that have successfully lashed together thousands of commodity processors in clusters.

In a discussion prior to the X1E's launch, Chris Jehn, Cray's vice president of government affairs, worried that the United States was already being lulled into a false sense of supercomputing superiority because IBM's BlueGene/L cluster had overtaken Japan's Earth Simulator atop the Top 500 list of supercomputers.

'The president's 2006 budget still doesn't show commitment to supercomuting,' Jehn said.

Still, government agencies, particularly the Energy Department, are buying. IBM's BlueGene/L, which currently peaks at 90 TFLOPS (trillions of calculations per second) will eventually reside at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Also at Energy, the Oak Ridge National Lab, already a Cray customer, plans an upgrade to a 20-TFLOPS X1E this year. 'Oak Ridge want 250 TFLOPS by 2007,' Jehn said.

Unlike BlueGene/L, the Cray X1E employs proprietary vector processors. And unlike its predecessor, the X1, Cray's new system uses dual-core chips, providing almost three times the performance of the X1, according to Jehn. The X1E can be configured with up to 8,192 processors, which would, in theory, make it capable of 147 TFLOPS.

Multi-language data extraction

In a particularly interesting demo, officials from Attensity Corp. showed one GCN editor how its Attensity Workgroup software could be taught to accurately extract unstructured data from text files'a critical function for intelligence and law enforcement agencies (the CIA's In-Q-Tel venture fund invested in Attensity).

The software was already pretty good at distinguishing between the information a user wants and information that's merely similar, but with a few clicks, it learns to fine-tune its capabilities.

What may turn out to be Attensity Workstation's best attribute, however, is its support of multiple languages.
The software's new Directed Learning technology can ex- tract text regardless of the language it was written in, al- though the version shipping right now supports only European-based and Middle Eastern languages. Support for Asian languages will be out next year.

Overall, the product offers a powerful step in gathering unstructured data. For now, though, agencies must pull files together for the program to search, but Attensity CEO Craig Norris said the technology could one day find unstructured data across distributed sources, such as Internet-based documents.

BIOS in the workplace

Normally a visit from Phoenix Technologies Ltd., the company that likely made the basic input/output system your PC is running now, might elicit a yawn (and it did). After all, when was the last time BIOSes were exciting? (Pop quiz: What key combination gets you into your system's BIOS?)

Then Al Sisto, Phoenix's CEO, opened his notebook computer and started showing off the company's FirstWare software. Not to ruin the punchline, but like the BIOS you rarely en-counter, FirstWare runs independent of Windows so you can access it even if your operating system is on the blink. One module'FirstWare Assistant'can bring up Microsoft Outlook even if Windows won't launch'a huge coup for mobile workers. Granted the Outlook data is static, but if you need to get a contact quickly, you'll want to use FirstWare regardless of Windows' health because it opens in a fraction of the time it takes to load Windows and Outlook.

Also part of the software suite are FirstWare Connect, which gives users Internet access to support resources if their OS won't boot, and FirstWare Recover Pro, which lets users revert to a stable state'all without Windows. 'If your disk drive can spin, you can recover,' Sisto said.

Aside from Phoenix's FirstWare, the company's new Core Managed Environment includes baked-in security features for authenticating systems on a network.

Administrators can push the functionality out to systems using a program called Phoenix TrustConnector, which is available from resellers. But going forward, interested IT groups should be looking for vendors that implement CME in their systems.

E-mail Brad Grimes at insider@postnewsweektech.com.

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