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Gigaflops a-gogo as NEC takes on Beowulf

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Fancy a free supercomputer? If you come up with a good enough project to use it on, NEC will lend you an eight gigaflop SX-6i vector computer worth €120,000 (£80,000) to try out for three months.

Dr Joerg Stadler, NEC European Computer Systems' marketing manager, says that while some trial users may then go ahead and buy or rent their SX-6i, there is more to the scheme than that.

"We're trying to find new application areas," he says. "We expect researchers in physics, chemistry and engineering to be interested, but we would especially love to hear brilliant ideas from biology or genomics, for example."

NEC's supercomputer group has met strong competition in recent years from relatively cheap PC-based Linux systems using Beowulf clustering software. So as well as seeking new markets for the SX-6, it is saying 'If you can't beat them, join them' and extending its product range to include both Linux clusters and multiprocessing boxes housing up to 32 Intel Itanium processors.

The various approaches to supercomputing each suit different application areas, according to Stadler. For example, if a problem can be broken down into many independent smaller problems, a Beowulf cluster is ideal.

But where areas of the problem are not independent of each other, such as modelling earth systems or aerodynamics, he says that an SX-6 system, with a smaller number of more powerful processors, is a better option.

"One SX-6 generates the power of four to 12 cluster processors and is much easier to program," he adds.

The SX-6i uses an NEC-designed vector microprocessor with an architecture similar to the original Crays. Its advantage over general purpose chips is not just compute capability but memory bandwidth - it has nearly ten times as much as Itanium.

It is also used in multiprocessor machines. A recent customer here is the UK Metereological Office, which is installing a system for weather modelling, including 30 eight-processor SX-6 modules.

Project proposals for the loan of an SX-6i need to be in by the start of April. ®

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