Supercomputer Spurs Scientific Computing on Macs

Virginia Tech's project is poised to become the world's third largest supercomputer. However, the cluster uses a 1,100 of Apple's Power Mac G5s.

SANTA CLARA, Calif.—A recent supercomputing coup for Apple Computer Inc. may help the computer maker make larger inroads into high-performance, scientific computing.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State Universitys supercomputer running 1,100 Apple Power Mac G5s and announced last month already is attracting the attention of other academic institutions and offers to build commercial clones, said the projects director in an interview with during the OReilly Mac OS X Conference here.

A big part of the attraction is the supercomputers ability to reach levels of performance that place it among the fastest clusters in the world at a relatively inexpensive cost of about $5 million, said Srinidhi Varadarajan, director of the Terascale Computing Facility at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.

"There is a lot of interest in Macs because everyone sitting in this domain of scientific computing realizes that here you have a processor that can really do numericals," he said. "It can do numericals better than anybody out there, and thats what they care about."


Meanwhile, Apple is realizing the growing interest in Macs for scientific computing. Guy "Bud" Tribble, Apples vice president of software technology, earlier this week spoke at the BioSilico 2003 conference about the growing respect that the Power Mac G5 and Mac OS X are gaining in scientific computing because of the processors speed and the Unix base of the OS.

Scientific computing is also featured at the OReilly conference, where Tribble will be among those addressing the issue during the conferences closing day on Thursday.

The Virginia Tech supercomputer, now largely built, is continuing to undergo optimization as the project team tries to reach greater speed heights. It already is the only supercomputer of the top 500 worldwide to be run on Macs and falls, at least for now, as the third fastest supercomputer in the world with a speed of 9.555 teraflops, Varadarajan said. The project team hopes to reach 10 teraflops over the next few days.

Apples Virginia Tech win, though, came at the last minute. The university originally was working with Dell Computer Corp. and Intel Corp. on an Itanium-based system before the deal fell through, Varadarajan said. That left the team to search for the best machines and processors for the job. After considering vendors such as Hewlett-Packard Co., Sun Microsystems Inc., Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and IBM, the university turned to Apple after hearing of the unveiling of the new G5 at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in June.

"Had Apples announcement occurred two months prior, we would not even have looked at any of the other options," Varadarajan said.

Within days of the G5 announcement, the team was on the phone with Apple. By September, it had begun receiving the first shipments of the computers, which run on dual 2GHz PowerPC G5 processors.

None of the other options would have cost less than $9 million, and they all would have delivered lower performance, Varadarajan said. The G5s required about half the number of processors of any other options.

Virginia Tech plans to put its supercomputer into general production by the end of the year, while some researchers will get the first crack at running computations as early as late November, Varadarajan said.

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