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DARPA awards $76.6m supercomputer challenge

Small scale ExtremeScale

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First knights

The first of the Knights GPU co-processors, Knights Ferry, uses a 32-core x64 chip with attached vector units for each core and a shared, coherent cache running across all cores. The chip inside the Knights Ferry GPU co-processor is code-named Aubrey Isle.

The next generation of chips, called Knights Corner, will have 50 of these hybrid x64-vector cores. The interesting thing about this is that Intel may not need to put Xeon chips inside its ExtremeScale boxes at all, except for maybe a head node and a storage node.

Ditto for Nvidia is it gets around to embedding a proper x64 processor inside of its GPUs.

Whatever Intel and Nvidia are planning for their prototype systems, they are not saying yet, and that stands to reason since the prototypes are not due until 2018. Whatever Intel does, it surely will not be a bunch of Xeon processors circa 2018. The compute density of standard x64 processors, while no doubt impressive, will not be enough to meet DARPA's goals eight years from now.

DARPA also awarded ExtremeScale contracts to MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and to Sandia National Laboratory, another of the big nuke labs run by the DOE that consumes a huge amount of flops and budget dollars.

Sandia is noteworthy in that it was also where Intel plunked its ground-breaking one teraflops massively parallel ASCI Red super, and where Cray got the development dough to create the massively parallel Red Storm Opteron-Linux super.

Red Storm is, of course, the prototype that eventually became the XT3, XT4, XT5, and now XT6 and XE6 supercomputer lines from Cray. Egos are always involved when it comes to supercomputers, and you can bet that Sandia wants to have the first ExtremeScale box, too.

Where is SGI?

The mystery about the DARPA ExtremeScale awards is why SGI was not among those chosen - perhaps SGI is on the Intel team? In early June, SGI announced Project Mojo, its own plan to pack a petaflops into a server rack - and using various kinds of accelerators.

The SGI project is not trying to cram the whole data center into a rack as the ExtremeScale project does, but SGI seemed pretty confident that it could get one petaflops of computing into a rack - and in a number of different ways - by the middle of 2011 or so. Condensing this down to get storage and cooling into the rack should be something SGI is interested in.

And what about IBM and Hewlett-Packard? Don't they accept ExtremeScale challenges?

DARPA said it has chosen a team of boffins at the Georgia Institute of Technology to create the application, benchmark, and metrics team to analyze how well or poorly the four ExtremeScale prototypes that Intel, Nvidia, MIT, and Sandia put together.

DARPA had not returned phone calls for more information on the ExtremeScale systems and the monetary awards each team received by press time. ®

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