IBM Unveils Fastest
Supercomputer Yet - Will
Test Nuclear Weapons Tests
By Nicole Volpe
NEW YORK (Reuters) - International Business Machines Corp on Thursday unveiled the fastest computer in the world, which the U.S. government will use to simulate nuclear weapons tests.
The supercomputer, able to process more in a second than one person with a calculator could do in 10 million years, was made for the Department of Energy's Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI).
The system could ease congressional opposition to the United States signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, banning all actual nuclear weapons testing worldwide.
``Without underground testing, we need simulations to make sure the stockpile is safe, reliable and operational,'' said David Cooper, a member of the President's Council on Computing and chief information officer of Lawrence Livermore Labs in California, where the system will be run.
Called ASCI White, the supercomputer will churn the factors involved in a nuclear detonation, including the weapon's age and design. This could eventually allow the government to manage its entire stockpile of nuclear weapons without any real nuclear tests, Cooper said.
The U.S. Senate last year declined to ratify the test ban treaty, insisting on the nation's right to continue testing nuclear weapons underground.
``If you polled the weapons designers right now, they would say that (actual) testing is still more effective,'' Cooper said.
The new supercomputer is a major step toward full simulation but is not yet capable of testing the nuclear weapons stockpile to standards set by experts.
A system that could replace actual nuclear tests must have a computing capability of 100 teraflops, or trillions of operations per second, versus the ASCI White computing capacity as tested by IBM of 12.3 teraflops, Cooper said.
``We're still on a timescale to do (100 teraflops) by 2004,'' he added.
1,000 Times Powerful Than Computer That Beat Kasparov
The system contains 8,192 copper microprocessors and is 1,000 times more powerful than its chess-playing predecessor ''Deep Blue,'' which defeated World Champion Gary Kasparov in the historic 1997 chess showdown between man and machine.
IBM is selling the system, which will take up the floor space equivalent to two basketball courts and weighs as much as 17 full-sized elephants, to the DOE for $110 million.
But designing the most powerful computer in the world has other pay-offs for IBM. The prestige could help it take a greater share in the supercomputer market, and it could use the advanced technology in its lower-level computer products.
``We're seeing more and more that deep computing will become a critical element in how real businesses run every day, and that it's not just in the territory of the propeller heads (technology buffs),'' said Nicholas Donofrio, IBM senior vice president technology and manufacturing.
IBM officials and analysts said parts of the design of ASCI White, which connects 512 separate computers together with high performance switches and software, could be built into computers used for everything from electronic business to designing cars.
IBM often sells its leading edge technologies to its rivals in the computer industry, using the proceeds to fund its enormous research and development budget.
``We could take elements of this system and sell it to other people,'' said Donofrio. ``Some of the things that might find their way from ASCI White into the other people's systems are the switch or chips that do the memory control.''
``This is part of IBM's product road map,'' said DH Brown analyst Richard Partridge. ``They have the government fund the extreme end and make sure they address all the difficult problems before they create products for tasks that are not as difficult as nuclear weapons stockpile management.''
In 1999, IBM became the leader in the traditional supercomputer market, in which some 250 computers that range in price from $2 million to $100 million are sold every year, for use in weather predictions, research and encryption, according to Joseph. IBM now has 30 percent of that market, Joseph said.
``This system becomes the biggest computer on earth,'' said Joseph. ``Having that kind of market presence is everything in the traditional supercomputer market and will allow them to take more market share.''

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