April 16, 2002

HP to build world's fastest Linux supercomputer for U.S. Department of Energy

- By Grant Gross -

Hewlett-Packard has won a U.S. Department of Energy contract to build a $24.5 million environmental-research supercomputer that HP says will be the world's most powerful Linux-based system.
The 8.3 teraflop machine -- roughly 8,300 times faster than a current personal computer -- would be the second most powerful supercomputer in the world, if it were running today. The supercomputer, which consists of 1,400 McKinley and Madison Intel Itanium Family Processors, is scheduled to go online in 2003 at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in southeast Washington state.

The HP supercomputer will be 30 times faster, have 50 times more disk space and 10 times more memory than the PNNL's current IBM supercomputer, built in 1997. The new supercomputer will have 1.8 terabytes of memory and 170 terabytes of disk space. During a conference call this afternoon, HP officials talked up the successful bid as showing HP can compete in the supercomputing market and how this shows the company's support for Linux.

Martin Fink, general manager of the Linux systems operation for HP, says this bid is part of an HP push into supercomputing during the past year and a half. Rich DeMillo, vice president and chief technology officer for HP, took a veiled shot at HP's supercomputing competitors in the press release announcement of the successful bid: "Today's announcement shows how HP has worked to help accelerate the shift from proprietary platforms to open architectures, which provide increased scalability, speed and functionality at a lower cost," he said. "This supercomputer is another validation of HP's service-centric technology vision, exemplifies the power and benefits inherent in the Itanium architecture and Linux, and clearly illustrates that there is more than one top player in the supercomputing market."

Asked why the project is using Linux, David Dixon, associate director of theory, modeling and simulation for the PNNL's Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, said Linux is what HP recommended. Fink, however, said that while Linux offered some price advantages, it was the right operating system to use with the Itanium architecture in this case.

"Whenever we make a bid, we try to use the best tool for the job," Fink said. "That was the determining factor."

Dixon said the his laboratory will use the new supercomputer to do detailed research and simulations focusing on addressing environmental problems and energy security, some of which weren't possible with the old supercomputer. Among the projects: research on cell functions, efficient energy use and predicting the reactions of radioactive materials. A big focus of the new computer will be simulations, such as how proteins interact with each other, he added.

"Our goal is not only to interpret experimental results and guide new experiments by doing good simulations, but to provide quantitative results that can actually replace experiments that are too difficult, dangerous or expensive," he said.

Fink said this Linux announcement is evidence of support for open standards in supercomputing. "This supercomputer validates our belief that the high-performance technical computing market will increasingly adopt industry-standard building blocks, architectures, and open platforms, as opposed to proprietary architectures and platforms," he said. "As a result, customers will continue to see benefits in terms of cost and performance."

Asked if the announcement means HP will contribute more to Linux's Itanium supercomputing code base, Fink said improvements made to the Linux code to deploy the PNNL supercomputer will go back to Linux, and he noted that the maintainer of the Linux for Itanium project works at HP.

"It allows us to have this very close relationship into the whole kernel evolution process," he said. "As we come up with enhancements to make the system perform better, those will flow through to the (Itanium) kernel maintenance tree, and any enhancements that are generic beyond the Itanium processor family specifically will go into the main kernel source tree, and everyone will benefit from that."

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