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New IBM Hybrid Supercomputer Offers Big Performance Jump

Indiana University plans to use the new technology, which combines Cell chips with PowerPC chips, to speed molecular research.

Sharon Gaudin

November 7, 2006

3 Min Read

Biomedical researchers at Indiana University expect to be able to do their molecular research five times faster once they adopt IBM's new hybrid supercomputer.

IBM on Tuesday unveiled its new lineup of processor systems and blades, high-speed connectivity and coprocessor acceleration technology for the System Cluster 1350. The hybrid supercomputer also will enable users to run a mixture of different processors, including AMD Opteron, Intel Xeon, and IBM Cell.

That combination of processors should give university researchers the boost they've been waiting for, says Craig Stewart, associate VP for research computing and chief operating officer of the pervasive technology labs at Indiana University. The school now runs the country's second-largest supercomputer, which already has a theoretical peak capability of 2,024 teraflops.

Stewart says researchers plan to continue to run the IBM JS21 blade using the IBM PowerPC chip that they already have in place in their supercomputer, Big Red. But within a few months, they plan to add cell blades to the system, and that should multiply the speed they're getting out of their supercomputer.

"Cells have eight processing cores in one processor, so one cell processor can do as much work as eight processors of the kind in your traditional desktop computer," says Stewart. "This will allow us to search for genetic similarities and anomalies much faster than with the traditional supercomputer. The search for cures to genetic diseases becomes feasible when it might otherwise not be."

Wendy McGee, director of IBM's clusters business unit, says it's the addition of the cell chips that largely makes the speed enhancements. The Cell processor was originally built for the upcoming Sony PlayStation 3 and is especially efficient at doing large, complex mathematical computations. While the Cell chips are handling that kind of calculation, the Opteron processor, for example, could be handling the storage functions, she says.

"The main message here is that a cluster is not a cluster is not a cluster," says Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT Research. "Depending on the processor platforms, the interconnect technologies, the communication technologies, and the switches clusters are no longer a one-size-fits-all technology. Enterprises that work with IBM will be able to develop cluster solutions specifically designed to the kinds of workloads they need to deal with. That's really good news for business."

IBM has a much greater range of technologies that can be incorporated into a cluster than any other vendor at this point, King says. "The downside is that any time you offer people a great deal of choice, it requires a good deal more homework than many companies are either used to performing or interested in performing," he says. "If they just know x86 all day and all night, then it may be hard to get the message through that there are other options out there."

Joe Wilcox, an analyst at JupiterResearch, says clustering these technologies together adds an awful lot of weight to them in their own industry sectors. "IBM has a reputation around supercomputing," he says. "The fact that IBM is producing this kind of a computer adds a lot of street cred to the technologies inside it. The hybrid is big news, but the fact that it's an IBM hybrid makes it bigger."

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