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IBM rediscovers ancient plan for renting powerful computers

Blue Gene brilliance

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A server announcement put out today by IBM has confirmed at least one thing - the computing gods have a sense of humor.

IBM has boldly made its Blue Gene supercomputer - the fastest system on the planet - available for rent. Customers can pay close to $10,000 per week to use a small chunk of a Blue Gene system. The idea being that drug designers, protein hunters and scientists can tap unprecedented compute power without needing to buy an entire Blue Gene system, which costs a minimum of $2m per rack.

Yes, the year is 2005.

The graybeards out there will remember that the practice of renting computers is decades old. IBM cranked out its first mainframes back in the 1960s and used to let, you guessed it, labs and businesses share space on the systems. Sure, there's a bit more glitz to today's model, but we're essentially talking about the same concept. Let's all have a giggle over how far we've come since the IT revolution started.

To be fair, there are some pretty radical differences between the IBM 360 mainframe and Blue Gene. The most obvious of which is the incredible horsepower present with the modern system.

The standard Blue Gene model squashes together 1,024 of IBM's dual-core Power processors into one rack. Consider that a 16-rack Blue Gene churned out 70.7 trillion calculations per second - or teraflops- to become the fastest computer, and its' clear we're not talking about some dinky, old mainframe. And there is a report that says that record-setting Blue Gene box has just doubled in size.

Despite its renting hype, IBM only has one Blue Gene rack actually up for use by customers. Researchers and businesses can send workloads to the rack via a "highly secure" VPN. IBM will then crank through the software and send data back to the customer.

"Today's announcement provides customers another venue for them to 'test drive' Blue Gene to help them make purchasing decisions for either their own racks or to determine if it is more financially beneficial to continue to buy time through IBM's Deep Computing Capacity on Demand centers," said David Gelardi, a vice president at IBM.

A big problem with this type of set up is that not too many applications are written to run on a supercomputer. The type of processing done by a system like Blue Gene requires serious software tweaking, if you want to get performance that's worth your money. IBM, however, says it's on the case.

"IBM, working with its business partners, is making Blue Gene applicable for workloads across a variety of disciplines," it said in a statement. "Many national lab and university members are enabling a growing list of HPC applications in areas of life sciences, hydrodynamics, quantum chemistry, molecular dynamics, astronomy and space research, and climate modeling."

Your typical customer will turn to IBM's other rental centers, which are comprised of Power, Opteron, and Xeon servers. IBM has 5,200 of these processors available to rent.

IBM has failed to be terribly clear about how it prices these processors. Sun Microsystems, by contrast, has set up a $1 per CPU hour rental model and even an auction system for computing power. (We say, "has set up," but that's not entirely fair, since Sun has yet to reveal a single customer for its rental system). HP also rents processors but doesn't say a whole lot about the idea, which should make any customer nervous. HP, after all, has a bad history of bragging about things it doesn't even sell.

So, are you ready to rent? The future is now - or at least forty years ago.®

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