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G5 cluster secures elite spot for Apple, IBM

I'll swap my Big Mac for your Green Destiny

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With some help from Virginia Tech, Apple has managed to join the ranks of the high-performance computing elite, as the "Big Mac" cluster is set to capture the title of the world's third fastest supercomputer.

The cluster made up of 2,200 G5 processors has reached 10.28 teraflops. This places it behind the 5,120 processor Earth Simulator system - 35.9 teraflops - and the 8,160 processor ASCI Q system - 13.8 teraflops. The results for the Mac G5 cluster, which was built at Virginia Tech, are appearing just as the maintainers of the top 500 list prepare to announce their latest high-performance computing results.

Some last minute tweaking may occur, but Jack Dongarra, a researcher at the University of Tennessee and top 500 official, said the Big Mac cluster is all but assured third place. The new top 500 list will arrive during the Supercomputer Conference being held Nov. 15-21.

Apple has been chided in recent years for falling behind Intel and AMD in PC processor performance. But its new relationship with IBM to use the Power PC 970 - aka G5 - processor has vaulted Apple to superstar status in the technical computing realm.

Beyond performance, the Mac-based cluster also comes with a far lower price-tag than other top systems. The Virginia Tech researchers say they paid full price for the new G5s and still managed to build Big Mac for just more than $5 million. The Earth Simulator and ASCI Q systems cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and maintain.

An Itanium 2-based system from HP is expected to capture fourth place in the new top 500 list. The computer uses 1,936 1.5GHz chips and a high-speed interconnect from Quadrics.

In an interview with Wired, Srinidhi Varadarajan, the lead architect of Big Mac, said he considered Itanic but sent it back to sea for a couple of reasons.

"Ironically, they lost the gigahertz game," Varadarajan told Wired, referring to Intel. "(The G5) is extremely faster than the Itanium II, hands down."

Itanium was billed to be the floating-point king, but it looks like IBM's design may well end up with the technical computing crown. The Linpack benchmark used to calculate the top 500 list measures a computer's floating-point execution performance.

The Big Mac system also points to the success of homegrown supercomputer makers. It's one of the strongest systems to date to come out of a custom shop and shows that many businesses can have incredible computers in their data centers with a fairly low investment.

Still, Varadarajan admits that the Big Mac required special attention to cooling and other infrastructure investments that some companies may not be able to afford or have room to build.

"The supercomputer needed a cooling system, and its designers worked with Liebert, a division of Emerson Network Power, known for its comprehensive range of protection systems for sensitive electronics. Based on the heat load for the system, normal air conditioning units were insufficient. Liebert was able to provide its new high-density rack mounted cooling system within the budget and time constraints of the project. They also custom designed computer racks along with power distribution equipment," Virginia Tech says on its Web site.

Researchers at Los Alamos National Lab have been working on supercomputer class systems than can fit in an average-size closest and operate without special cooling systems. The project is somewhat ironic given that it takes place at the same facility where ASCI Q is cooled by expensive specially designed cooling systems that resemble mini-nuclear reactors.

A marriage of Los Alamos' Green Destiny system and Big Mac may be exactly what the business world has been looking for to avoid the Gelsinger co-efficient. ®

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