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IBM, the world’s largest IT company, and supercomputer builder Cray were notified Nov. 21 that they will be awarded nearly $500 million in contracts by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to build next-generation, multi-petaflop computers.

Reuters reported that as Wall Street heard the news Cray’s stock shares rose 31 percent to $13.04 on the Nasdaq while IBM shares were off 24 cents at $92.84 on the New York Stock Exchange.

A spokesperson from DARPA, the Pentagon’s technology incubator, said that Cray, of Seattle, would get $250 million and that IBM, of Armonk, N.Y., would receive $244 million.

Left behind was Sun Microsystems, of Santa Clara, Calif., which had been competing hard for one or more of the lucrative contracts with its next-generation hardware and software. Sun’s stock was up slightly at $5.61 on Nov. 22.

Supercomputers are used to process huge amounts of data to simulate weather, analyze DNA and process other research-level tasks. They are used by research institutions, governments, the military and a few large companies.

DARPA said the contractors would work on Phase III of its HPCS (High Productivity Computing Systems) program, where they are commissioned with completing the designs and technical development of very large supercomputers, the spokesperson said.

The ultimate goal of the HPCS program is to create a new generation of economically viable high-productivity computing systems that will be available for national security and industrial users to purchase.

“High productivity computing is a key technology enabler for meeting our national security and economic competitiveness requirements,” said DARPA program manager William Harrod.

“High-productivity computing contributes substantially to the design and development of advanced vehicles and weapons, intelligence problems, the maintenance of our nuclear stockpile, and is a key enabler for science and discovery in security-related fields.”

DARPA, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Interior, awarded Sun, IBM and Cray a total of $146 million in July 2003 as part of the second phase of its 10-year-long HPCS program, which has a mission of producing a design for a high-performance system that is easier for programmers to use and scales to quadrillions of calculations per second (peta-scale computing).

DARPA said at that time that the HPCS program is aimed at filling a gap in high-end computing that it anticipates the Department of Defense will experience as it moves from traditional HPTC technology to the future, which is quantum computing.

DARPA wants the first computers of this type to be available by 2010.

IBM and Cray’s unusual supercomputer expertise

IBM currently powers the world’s top three fastest, most powerful supercomputers, according to the Linpack Top 500 listing that is updated twice per year.

The current No. 1 supercomputer, as of June 2006, is the IBM BlueGene/L, located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., which has recorded a sustained world-record speed of 280.6 teraFLOPS.

It delivers “extraordinary computing power for the nation’s Stockpile Stewardship Program,” a DARPA spokesperson said.

BlueGene/L is used by scientists at Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories.

Cray, formed from the March 2000 merger of Tera Computer and Cray Research, has a rich computing history that extends back to 1972, when the legendary Seymour Cray, the “father of supercomputing,” founded Cray Research.

The first Cray-1 system was installed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1976 for $8.8 million. It boasted a then-world-record speed of 160 million floating-point operations per second (160 megaflops) and an 8MB (1 million-word) main memory.

The Cray-1’s architecture reflected its designer’s penchant for bridging technical hurdles with revolutionary ideas. To increase the speed of this system, the Cray-1 had a unique “C” shape which enabled integrated circuits to be closer together.

No wire in the system was more than four feet long. To handle the intense heat generated by the computer, Cray developed an innovative refrigeration system using Freon.

Click here to read about NASA’s supercomputer.

In 1988, Cray Research introduced the Cray Y-MP, the world’s first supercomputer to sustain over 1 gigaflop on many applications. Multiple 333 MFLOPS processors powered the system to a record sustained speed of 2.3 gigaflops.

A hard blow to Sun

A Phase III DARPA contract would have been a major win for Sun, which has struggled throughout the current decade as the demand for high-end computers has cooled and new, cheaper technologies have come to the forefront.

Sun Global Communications Manager of Strategic Campaigns Carolyn Rohrer issued the following statement from the company late on Nov. 22:

“Sun will not be participating in the Phase III effort of DARPA’s High Productivity Computing System (HPCS) project.

“Sun has already achieved great advantage from research and development stemming from our Phase I and II efforts including: the Fortress language, Proximity and Optical Interconnects, Scaling Solaris, Checkpointing, and High Speed File Systems. Sun will continue to develop these technologies and systems to scale throughout our product line.

“The company’s participation in the high performance computing (HPC) market is strong and growing, as evidenced by last week’s announcements at Supercomputing: Sun powers 10 of the fastest supercomputers in the world and offers a new portfolio of technologies and service package specifically tuned for the HPC market. Innovation remains a core business focus for Sun. We continue to spend $2 billion annually on research and development, resulting in advancements in processors, software, systems and storage that are secure, energy-efficient and based on open standards. The company will continue our important engagements with DARPA mission partners and HPC customers.”

Sun Chairman Scott McNealy, who stepped down from his CEO position last April to focus on large-scale projects like this, told eWEEK back in June that “I’m pushing really hard on this one … We see this as a must-win situation.”

But in the end, the supercomputing expertise of Cray and the size and broad scope of IBM’s products and services won out.

DARPA Supercomputing Project Timeline

  • 2002: DARPA awards the first four Phase I contracts to build next-generation supercomputer to IBM, Cray, Sun and SGI. Each contract was worth $3 million.
  • 2003: DARPA awards $146 million to IBM, Cray and Sun for Phase II of supercomputer project. SGI is dropped from the program.
  • 2006: DARPA awards approximately $500 million to Cray and IBM for Phase III of the project. Sun is dropped from the program.
  • 2010: Final version of supercomputer expected to go online and serve as model for a new generation of high-performance computing platforms.
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