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IBM's Got A Big, Bad Computer
by Leander Kahney

3:00 a.m. Jun. 29, 2000 PDT


Last Friday a large convoy of trucks left an IBM manufacturing plant in upstate New York and headed across the country to a federal weapons lab in Northern California.

The 28 semi-trucks were loaded with the first batch of components for the world's largest supercomputer, a monster machine the size of two basketball courts that draws enough electricity to power a small town.


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Over the next two months IBM's ASCI White will be assembled at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the U.S.'s leading nuclear research labs.

The first convoy delivered only a quarter of the machine. Several more will be needed to deliver the rest.

When it is up and running, ASCI White will be the most powerful computer on the planet. It will be used to simulate nuclear test blasts at an unprecedented level of detail and speed. One of the simulations will run for 30 days. A Cray supercomputer built in 1995 would take 60,000 years to perform the same calculations.

ASCI White can perform a mind-boggling 12.3 trillion operations a second, or 12.3 teraflops. It is three times faster than the previous fastest machine, another IBM giant known as ASCI Blue, which runs at 3.8 teraflops.

"The numbers we're seeing make it by far the world's largest supercomputer," said Jim Jardine, the ASCI White program manager at IBM, who benchmarked the machine before it was shipped out. "It's a fast machine."

ASCI White is so powerful, it makes Deep Blue, its famous chess-playing cousin, look like a cheap pocket calculator. ASCI White is 1,000 times more powerful than Deep Blue, which generated 200 million chess moves every second to famously defeat World Chess Champion Gary Kasparov in May 1997.

ASCI White is not one computer, but a massively parallel machine made from 512 of IBM's RS 6000 servers. Each server has 16 processors -- supercharged versions of the PowerPC chips used in Apple's Macs -- which also operate in parallel.

Total processors: 8,192.

Each server is about the size of an air conditioner. They are stacked on top of each other in refrigerator-sized racks, which, arranged row after row, fill a giant hall the size of two basketball courts.

"The size is unbelievable," said Debra Goldfarb, an analyst with IDC. "Just the wiring will blow you away. It's so complex, it's unbelievable."

Running a parallel version of IBM's AIX, Big Blue's flavor of UNIX, the ASCI White supercomputer takes two hours to boot up.

It requires the constant attention of a small army of systems administrators. Because of the sheer number of parts, it tends to break down, although IBM said the machine will run 100 hours without crashing.

"It's designed for ultra-high reliability," Jardine said. "But it's not perfect."

ASCI White cost Lawrence Livermore $110 million but would have cost even more if IBM hadn't used off-the-shelf parts, according to a lab spokesman.

The machine joins a handful of giant supercomputers in the U.S. Department of Energy's Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative, a multi-million-dollar effort to build supercomputers capable of simulating nuclear test blasts.

Under terms of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the U.S. is prohibited from test exploding weapons from its aging nuclear stockpile. Supercomputers allow scientists to predict how volatile materials in the warheads behave as they age and change.

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