Big Blue's successor: ASCI White

Published June 30th, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

IBM announced Wednesday it has built the most powerful supercomputer in the world, able to perform 12.3 trillion operations per second, three times faster than the next-fastest computer, according to The Associated Press.  

An earlier version proved capable of defeating the world's greatest chess player in a 1997 tournament. The latest machine is intended to continue the advance toward matching and eventually surpassing the computing capacity of the human brain.  

The computer, called Advanced Strategic Computing Initiative White, or ASCI White, covers 9,920 square feet of floor space, equal to two NBA basketball courts, and weighs 106 tons.  

IBM will deliver ASCI White to the Energy Department's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory this summer. Under the ASCI contracts, the department pays a company -- in this case, $110 million -- to build a computer that can simulate the testing of nuclear weapons.  

In time, said IBM and Livermore officials, this computer could lead to the end of nuclear testing.  

Last year, when the Senate rejected a treaty to ban nuclear testing worldwide, the Clinton administration argued that using computer simulation instead of actual nuclear explosions was a reliable way of appraising the US weapons stockpile.  

Opponents questioned the capability of current computer modeling and said the treaty would harm efforts to maintain the safety and reliability of the US nuclear arsenal.  

To perform a full three-dimensional nuclear simulation in 1985, it would have taken the fastest supercomputer available 60,000 years, said David Schwoegler, spokesman for the lab. When a supercomputer reaches 100 trillion operations per second, the lab can do the same test in a month. They expect that to happen by 2004.  

In creating ASCI White, IBM exceeded one of the most venerable axioms of computing, Moore's Law. The rule, offered by Intel founder Gordon Moore in the early days of electronic computing, maintains that computer power will double every 12 months to 18 months.  

"We've been walking on Moore's Law, using it as a floor rather than a ceiling," Schwoegler said.  

IBM's ASCI Blue Pacific, until now the fastest supercomputer, was demonstrated 21 months ago. That computer could perform 3.87 trillion operations a second. IBM's contract required the new computer to run at 10 teraflops, or 10 trillion operations per second.  

"It is certainly a technical milestone that we are very proud of," said Nicholas D'Onofrio, IBM's senior vice president of technology and manufacturing.  

ASCI White was built mostly from components of existing commercial computers, D'Onofrio said, and can do far more than just model nuclear explosions.  

IBM's Blue Pacific, now in use at Livermore, will soon be shared with the university research community.  

IBM officials said that the new system could contribute to breakthroughs in financial models, genetic computing and allow a country to monitor national air space with a single machine. The existing 18-hour computing cycles needed to create a global weather model could be reduced to seconds.  

ASCI White has 8,192 microprocessors and is 1,000 times more powerful than "Deep Blue," which defeated chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1997.  

"The sheer scale of it is an impressive feat," said Hank Dietz, a professor and supercomputer expert at the University of Kentucky at Lexington. "The only machine I know of that's larger is Intel's ASCI Red, and these are much faster processors."  

The human brain, it is estimated, computes about 1,000 times faster than ASCI White, which requires 1.2 megawatts of power, enough electricity to power 1,000 homes.  

At IBM's current rate, a supercomputer could exceed the brain's capacity in 10 years. Even now, it would take one person with a calculator 10 million years to do the same number of calculations ASCI White can do in one second.  

"It is very exciting, especially since we are beginning to get up there in capacity to the human brain," D'Onofrio said. "We pegged Deep Blue at about a lizard brain. This one [ASCI White] has the computing capacity of about a mouse brain" -- (The Associated Press) 

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