Pittsburgh Post-Gazette TechMan column [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]
(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 15--In the world of computers, size matters.
Cray Inc. has begun installation of a $188 million supercomputer called Blue Waters at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois.
It will use 235 Cray XE6 cabinets with AMD's 16-core Opteron 6200 processors combined with 4 gigabytes of memory per core for a total of 1.5 petabytes, the university says.
To give you some idea of how massive this computer is, a petabyte is a measure of information equal to a quadrillion bytes. Google processes about 24 petabytes of information a day.
As for storage, there will be 500 petabytes available.
But IBM is planning an even bigger machine, an exascale computer. The Netherlands Foundation for Research in Astronomy has enlisted the help of IBM in a $43 million project to build a supercomputer for the new Square Kilometer Array, according to Engadget. The array reportedly is a $2.1 billion initiative to construct the world's largest radio telescope across a 3,000-kilometer strip of Australia or South Africa.
The huge telescope will produce an exabyte of data each day.
An exabyte is 1,000 petabytes -- reportedly twice as much information as there is traffic on the Internet in a day.
But it gets bigger yet.
According to James Bamford in a recent article in Wired magazine, the National Security Agency is building a $2 billion facility at Bluffdale, Utah, to store and process all the communications and other data that the spy agency intercepts.
That could reach as much as a yottabyte of data. A yottabyte is one quadrillion gigabytes, a number so big that no one has yet coined a term for the next higher magnitude.
The problem with all this data is that much of it is encrypted and even garden-variety encryption can take current computers centuries to crack.
"So the agency had one major ingredient -- a massive data storage facility -- under way. Meanwhile, across the country in Tennessee, the government was working in utmost secrecy on the other vital element: the most powerful computer the world has ever known," wrote Mr. Bamford.
Called the High Productivity Computing Systems program, it aims to advance computer speed a thousandfold, creating a machine that could execute a quadrillion operations a second, known as a petaflop.
There were actually two efforts to do this side-by-side at Oak Ridge: the one the public knows about, run by the Department of Energy, and the secret one, run by the NSA.
To develop the new exaflop machine by 2018, the NSA has proposed constructing two connecting buildings in Oak Ridge to house the necessary equipment.
They will eventually use about 200 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 200,000 homes, and produce a gargantuan amount of heat, requiring 60,000 tons of cooling equipment, Mr. Bamford wrote.
In addition, Cray Inc., which is building Blue Waters, reportedly has a $250 million contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to build a massively parallel supercomputer called Cascade with a speed that could top out at 10 to 20 petaflops.
Now, let's get small, to quote Steve Martin.
The Raspberry Pi Foundation in the United Kingdom has been working on computers cheap enough for students to buy.
Its first model, costing $35, went on the market Feb. 29 and sold out immediately.
For $35 you get a 700 MHz ARM processor (the kind used in many cell phones), a graphics chip and 256 Megabytes of RAM. You can run Linux on it.
It also has two USB ports, an HDMI video output, audio output and an ethernet jack in addition to the SD card slot.
A $25 model is planned that has only one USB port and lacks the ethernet connection.
More telling is what it doesn't have: a hard drive or optical drive (you can load the software from an SD card like you use for storing photos on your camera), a case, a keyboard or a monitor.
So its basically a naked little motherboard with ports.
But hey, 35 bucks. I wonder if you bought a million of them, could you connect them to make a cheap supercomputer?
You can order the little bugger, but expect to wait a while to get one.
Read TechMan's blog at post-gazette.com/techman. Watch TechTalk at post-gazette.com/multimedia or listen at post-gazette.com/podcast.
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