IBM has built the first supercomputer that, scientists hope, is powerful enough to simulate the explosion of a nuclear weapon.
The $110 million machine is a major step toward an era when computers will provide such benefits as vastly improved weather forecasts and individually designed medicines.
The new IBM computer, called ASCI White, weighs 106 tons and occupies an area the size of two basketball courts. It would take the next four biggest computers in the world combined to equal its processing power.
The new supercomputer can do 12.3 trillion calculations a second, making it about 30,000 times more powerful than today's desktop personal computers. It is 1,000 times more powerful than IBM's Deep Blue, the supercomputer that beat chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997.
"Every man, woman and child on the face of the Earth would have to add up 2,000 random numbers a second to keep up with this machine," said David Cooper, chief information officer at the Energy Department's Livermore National Laboratories in California.
Cooper said he was "cautiously optimistic" that ASCI White will for the first time let government scientists perform the complex modeling and simulation needed to ensure the reliability of the explosive yields in U.S. nuclear weapons, eliminating the need for actual underground tests.
"But a lot of the old-timers will say, `I'm not willing to give up on testing until I see a lot more of these simulations,'" Cooper said.
Last year, using a model that makes 1 trillion calculations a second, the Livermore lab was able to test nuclear weapon "triggers." Combining those tests with ASCI White testing of explosive yields would require 20 or 30 days of work on a computer that makes 100 trillion calculations a second, Cooper said.
IBM has entered into "discussions" with the Energy Department's office of defense programs to deliver such a machine by 2004, said Jim Jardine, IBM's Austin, Texas-based project manager for ASCI White. The letters stand for the Energy Department's "accelerated strategic computing initiative."
Besides Livermore, nuclear simulation tests are being conducted at Los Alamos and the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. They are necessitated by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the United States has not signed but by which it abides.
IBM believes the supercomputing breakthrough can be applied to fields other than nuclear weaponry. They include:
Global weather modeling under which current 18-hour computing cycles can be reduced to a few seconds, radically transforming early warning systems.
Production of pharmaceuticals that are custom-tailored to a person's genetic profile.
Integrated monitoring of air routes, jet stream weather patterns and pollution migration.
The basic building block of the new IBM supercomputer is the RS/6000. Since 1992, IBM has sold more than 1 million of these machines to about 150,000 companies.
Jardine noted that the ASCI White system rests on a structure that combines many of these units, unlike "the one-of-a-kind [supercomputers] that not a lot of people can afford."
Still, in sheer scale, the new machine dwarfs all that has gone before. If it were to be deployed as a Web server, it could process 6 billion online transactions in a minute.
To get the job done:
Its 8,192 microprocessors contain about 2,000 miles of copper wiring.
It holds more than 160 trillion bytes of disk storage capacity, enough to house twice the contents of the Library of Congress, and 16,000 times more than PCs with 10 gigabytes of storage capacity.
It has a memory bank of 6.2 trillion bytes, nearly 100,000 times more than today's average desktop PC, which has 64 megabytes of memory.
It requires 1.2 megawatts of electricity, enough to power a small-sized city.
Shipments of the machine from the IBM performance testing facility in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to Livermore, which have begun, is requiring 28 tractor-trailer trucks.