Is AMD losing its supercomputing lustre?

Academics once picked up on AMD's processors for supercomputing because they were inexpensive and performed well. But while the chips continue to conquer more of the desktop market, their attractiveness for supercomputers may have dimmed

A major British research centre has installed a supercomputer based on AMD's Athlon MP computer processors and the Linux operating system, the organisations announced this week. But Workstations UK, which built the computer, said that since it was installed last year AMD chips no longer have a major advantage over Pentium 4 processors in the high-performance computing market.

The government-backed Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CLRC) has established the "supercluster" in Oxfordshire's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory for use with work on genomics, climate modelling, computational fluid dynamics and other research. The supercomputer is based on 32 of AMD's Athlon MP chips in dual-processing configurations, Wulfkit interconnects and Linux-based Beowulf clustering software.

Workstations UK said the cluster was installed last summer, at a time when the Athlon performed far better than Intel's Pentium III. However, following price cuts and a manufacturing process shrink, the Pentium 4 is about on par with Athlon, Workstations UK said.

"Things have moved on from where they were then, and we tend to quote on both chips now," said Workstations UK director Robin Harker. "Last year Athlon was clocked faster, and had better floating-point and integer performance than Pentium III. It was an easy sell."

He said the company finds that the Pentium 4 works well for applications requiring high memory bandwidth. To achieve the improved performance it is usually necessary to recompile the software, something that academics can usually do because they have access to the source code of the software they use, Harker said.

Athlon is a better buy in cases where the software can't be recompiled, he said, and it is also somewhat cheaper, although the processor price isn't as much of an issue in the high-performance market as in the desktop arena.

One disadvantage of Athlon is its high heat dissipation, Harker said, which he hopes will improve with new chips based on a 0.13-micron manufacturing process. Another improvement for high-performance uses would be a larger on-die memory cache, but he said AMD had told him there was "no market" for this.

The cluster is connected to the UK's e-Science Grid, a project sometimes referred to as Internet 2, which is designed to give scientists high-speed access to computing resources across the UK and, ultimately, across Europe.

Though AMD is known chiefly for giving rival Intel a run for its money in the desktop computer market, the company also has a modest effort under way to crack into the low-budget Beowulf supercomputer market.

Supercomputers, used for heavy-duty number-crunching tasks such as modelling global warming or simulating car crashes, typically have been available only to large corporations or others with big budgets. But a newer generation of Beowulf systems is bringing costs down -- though the systems aren't appropriate for all computing jobs.

In March of last year AMD sold a Linux Networx-built 96-processor Beowulf cluster to Boeing to aid in designing the Delta IV rocket for launching satellites into orbit.

News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.


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