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1/27/2004
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Customers Eye Virginia Tech's Supercomputer Upgrade

The school's decision to replace its Big Mac supercomputer processors with Apple Xserve G5 servers will make the installation more attractive to potential customers.

Virginia Tech's decision to replace its "Big Mac" supercomputer processors with Apple Computer Xserve G5 servers will make the installation more attractive to the federal agencies and organizations negotiating with the university for its novel supercomputer technology.

A Virginia Tech spokewoman said the university and Apple have received "a number of inquiries" from federal agencies to use the university's installation or its supercomputer-kit technology to build their own supercomputer installations. The key proprietary piece of the installation--recently ranked the third most powerful supercomputer in the world--is its fault-tolerant software environment called Dj' Vu.

The software and the supercomputer design are the brainchild of Srinidhi Varadarajan, assistant professor of computer science. When he first went to Apple with his plan to link 1,100 G5s, the company was so incredulous that Virginia Tech had to send a team to Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., to convince company executives that the plan was serious.

The installation has been up and running for a few months, but the swapping of G5s for Xserve servers will shrink the size of the installation. "We'll cut the space used by a factor of three," said a university spokeswoman. "We'll go from 3,000 square feet to 1,000 square feet."

The spokeswoman said the existing system has performed well, but it will be dismantled soon. As for the existing G5's, she said they will all be used somewhere, "They will all find a happy home."

Varadarajan built the system from off-the-shelf hardware components. He was initially attracted to IBM's 64-bit PowerPC 970 processor with its 2-GHz speed and floating-point capabilities, but was frustrated when he learned the processor wasn't available from IBM. He then focused on Apple's G5, which utilizes dual 970s. The installation uses Apple's Mac OS.10 operating system and Mellanox Technologies' InfiniBand cluster technology to tie everything together.

The upgraded installation will be more conducive to clustering than the original version and will look more like a traditional supercomputer installation, the spokeswoman said.

As for potential customers, she said federal agencies, including the Argonne National Lab, the National Security Agency, and NASA, are among those expressing interest in the supercomputer technology. She added that negotiations were under way with potential customers who could use the university's installation itself, or obtain rights to build their own supercomputer based on the university's technology.

In recent rankings of the world's supercomputers by the University of Tennessee, the Virginia Tech installation held third place, behind Japan's $250 million Earth Simulator Center and Hewlett-Packard's $215 million installation at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The most eye-popping feature of Virginia Tech's "Big Mac" installation is its $7 million price tag.

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