IBM, Cray beat Sun to US supercomputer pacts

IBM Corp. and Cray Inc have beat out Sun Microsystems Inc. to win sizable U.S government contracts to design a new generation supercomputer.

On Tuesday the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded the two companies four-year contracts to design a supercomputer that is 100 times more powerful than today’s most powerful systems, yet is simpler to program, administer and use.

Cray Inc.’s contract is valued at US$250 (CAD $285) million and IBM’s is worth $244 (CAD $278.5) million.

Each company is expected to have a prototype supercomputer ready by 2010.

The contracts were awarded as part of DARPA’s High Productivity Computing Systems (HPCS) program, which is targeted at the national security community, science and industrial sectors.

Launched in 2002, its goal is to develop a system capable of performing calculations at the rate of two to four petaflop per second. A petaflop is one quadrillion (one thousand trillion) calculations per second. “Flop” stands for floating-point operations.

The fastest supercomputer in operation today, an IBM BlueGene system, operates at 360 teraflops, or 360 trillion calculations per second.

Sun Microsystems Inc., which had been funded in earlier rounds of the contract, lost out on the latest round.

However the company still plans to integrate the technology it had been developing into its product lines, a Sun spokeswoman said.

Besides developing prototypes of the supercomputers, IBM and Cray are also tasked with building programming tools that speed the time it takes to write applications tenfold compared with what was possible when the HPCS program began.

DARPA says the ultimate goal of the project is to create a new generation of economically viable high productivity computing systems that can be sold to national security and high-end industrial users.

Federal agencies likely to use the supercomputers will include the National Security Agency, the Department of Energy Office of Science and the National Nuclear Security Agency.

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