Intel Corp. today was to unveil its contender as the world's fastest computer. But the hardware may be upstaged by software that could significantly broaden the use of such powerful systems.
The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company says its new Paragon XP/S system can perform from 5 billion to 300 billion operations per second, for a price ranging from less than $2 million to $55 million.
That's a tenfold increase for Intel, and comparable to the CM-5 system announced by arch-rival Thinking Machines Corp. of Cambridge, Mass., on Oct. 29.
Such vast power comes by stringing together many standard microprocessor chips, using a technique called massively parallel computing. Paragon, for example, has up to 4,000 processors.
The parallel approach, a key focus of a supercomputer conference that was to begin today in Albuquerque, N.M., may be essential to solve daunting problems in climatic change, superconductivity, genetics and medicine. Supercomputers have historically been used mainly for weapons development and intelligence-gathering.
"We are moving from nukes and spooks to genes and greens," summed up Gary Smaby, who heads a Minneapolis-based research company that tracks the supercomputer industry.
Besides Intel, supercomputer announcements are expected this week from Minneapolis-based Cray Research Inc. and Alliant Computer Systems of Littleton, Mass.
A House-Senate conference committee is now debating plans to spend more than $2 billion on supercomputer and communications development over five years.
The biggest obstacle to massively parallel computing is software. It is difficult to break up programs so they can be gang-tackled by many electronic brains at once. Many programmers aren't familiar with the custom-made operating systems typically used to control basic functions of parallel machines.
That software gap has set off an industry race to make a simplified internal housekeeping program, able to run on a single microchip or on a thousand such chips working together. The new buzzword for this new software is "microkernel."