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US Army Drafts Apple Xserve for Supercomputer

By Blane Warrene MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Jun 22, 2004 11:09 AM PT

Apple announced late Monday that it had entered into an agreement to provide a U.S. Army contractor with a supercomputer made up of 1,566 dual-processor G5 Xserves running Mac OS X Panther Server.

US Army Drafts Apple Xserve for Supercomputer

COLSA Corporation commissioned the supercomputer, known as the MACH 5, which stands for "multiple advanced computers for hypersonic research."

"We are building this -- hardware, software, labor and all -- for [US]$5.8 million, a fraction of the cost of what others have paid to build supercomputers," Anthony DiRienzo, executive vice president at COLSA, told MacNewsWorld.

Huntsville, Alabama-based COLSA, a government technology provider with 800 employees and offices in five states, will use the system for computational fluid dynamics (CFD) research for hypersonic flight for the U.S. Army Research and Development Command. According COLSA, the multinode supercomputer should be online sometime this fall.

NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) also are expected to benefit from the new computer through joint projects with the U.S. Army. CFD is the process in which data is analyzed for modeling aerothermodynamics, or external flow over vehicle shapes.

Apple's Sweet Home Alabama

For his part, DiRienzo credits strong support from Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), a member of Subcommittees on Defense and Homeland Security, for furthering the MACH 5 project.

In an e-mail message, Sen. Shelby told MacNewsWorld he is a proud sponsor of initiatives like the MACH 5.

"As scientists and engineers push the bounds of modern technology, and our military systems grow in complexity, I believe it is important to ensure that our armed forces have access to the tools they need to succeed," Sen. Shelby wrote.

"I am pleased to support federal funding that allows us to make the necessary investments today to enable the development of future technologies designed to transform not just our military capabilities but also commercial applications," he continued.

COLSA might well consider Shelby its guardian angel. When MacNewsWorld contacted two Alabama state representatives, Albert Hall and Laura Hall (no relation), both of whom hold office in the district in which Huntsville sits, neither could offer any information on COLSA -- nor even knew about the contractor.

"What is a 'supercomputer'?" Rep. Albert Hall went so far as to ask this reporter.

Apple No One-Shot Wonder

Apple won the contract with COLSA after going through a vendor evaluation process along with five other potential providers. According to DiRienzo, COLSA needed a solution with a small footprint, offering high performance at a lower cost and requiring minimal power.

DiRienzo believes the MACH 5 should be one of the fastest supercomputers in the world -- and according to the most recent Top 500 Supercomputers List, maintained in part by the U.S. Department of Energy, the MACH 5 would rank second, providing up to 25 teraflops of computing power per second.

In an interview with MacNewsWorld, Peter Kastner, executive vice president and chief research officer at Aberdeen Group, said this is a wakeup call to those who watch the supercomputing sector.

"With this deal with COLSA, Apple has shown they are not a one-shot wonder, but a force to be reckoned with," he said, referencing Apple's debut supercomputing effort at Virginia Tech in 2003.

"This is 'Moore's Law of Supercomputers," Kastner added. "Building custom systems is now totally uneconomical. All future systems of this nature will be built from industry-standard components."

The number one supercomputer in the world, Japan's earth simulator, was built at a cost of $350 million, a 98 percent price premium to the MACH 5, which has the potential to land in the number two spot the next time these rankings are compiled.

"High-performance computing is now totally price-elastic," Kastner continued. "[The MACH 5] offers power at $250,000 per teraflop."

Kastner identified the chips of record in high-performance computing as IBM's PowerPC, including the G5 used by Apple, and Intel's architecture, which holds 268 spots on the Top 500 list.

Future High-Performance Applications

DiRienzo went on to say that COLSA is planning to put the Xserve G5 nodes into 42 racks, where they will need 150 tons of air pumped in to cool the system. He also said the supercomputer will run on Gigabit Ethernet because this project is more processor-intensive, rather than network-intensive.

According to DiRienzo, the MACH5 will process massive amounts of data for its client, reducing months of numbers crunching to hours. "We came in when data analysis was taking six months and reduced it to one month," DiRienzo said. "This setup will be processing the data overnight."

Kastner believes this is essential to reducing time to market on technologies and also to the "mainstreaming" of high-performance computing outside of government research and development.

"There are uses on Wall Street, where processing derivatives seconds faster than the competition can mean millions in profit, in the electronics industry for designing and testing circuit boards, and in media and entertainment for digital rendering," Kastner pointed out.

Kastner said that it boils down to speeding up the iterations of data -- reducing the number of months and years it takes to analyze data for a product.

"If it takes three days to predict tomorrow's weather, what good is it?" he said.

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