How to get a supercomputer for free

If NEC's trial, which began on Monday in the UK, to give away brand-new free supercomputers sounds too good to be true, it is - almost

NEC on Monday began a trial whereby it is to give away supercomputers to researchers in the UK. The only catch is that aspiring supercomputer owners have to submit a research idea that NEC likes, and if they are allocated one they get to keep it for three months; after that they will be asked to return it, or buy it for a cool 120,000 euros (about £81,470). Despite its price, the SX-6i supercomputer is, on the outside at least, a modest piece of kit. Measuring just 73cm deep by 70cm high and 45cm wide, the computer could pass for a standard tower PC. Even the single processor (in the basic configuration), which runs at a modest 500MHz and contains an unremarkable 60 million transistors, doesn't seem all that special. But NEC says the SX-6i is a true supercomputer because of its data-handling capabilities. Intel Pentium chips and AMD's Athlons have feature called SIMD, which lets them perform a calculation on several lots of data simultaneously. The feature is commonly used for graphics and multimedia applications. In the vector processor used by NEC's SX-6i, a calculation can be performed on 256 bits of data in parallel, making it ideal for big computational jobs such as climate research and fluid dynamics. NEC's vector processors lack a cache memory found in PC processors, but make up for it in memory bandwidth -- which, at 32 gigabytes per second, is an order of magnitude higher than most desktop processors. To achieve this, each NEC vector processor has some 4,000 pins on its underside connecting it to the motherboard. It all stacks up to eight billion floating point operations per second, or 8 Gigaflops; if that is not enough, you can put eight processors into a single system with a corresponding increase in memory, bandwidth and processing power (such a system would cost about 2m euros), and then cluster up to 128 of these systems in a system that would have just over 8TB of memory and 32TB per second of bandwidth. Dr Jörg Stadler, marketing manager for NEC's European Supercomputer Systems, said only the basic single-processor unit is being offered in the Try & Buy promotion, which kicks off a year after NEC launched the SX-6i in Europe. "Try & Buy is intended to get our supercomputer spread around," said Stadler. "Today there are a limited number of applications, so the idea is to offer academics the chance to check it out -- if they have an idea they think is appealing then they should write it down and send it to us." "If we think it is interesting we will give them a machine free for three months. We will learn a lot, the scientists will learn about our vector processor, and at the end of the three months they can go to their funding bodies if they decide they want to keep it." Stadler said he hopes to get applications in particular from the field of biotechnology. "We don't know if it is suited to that," said Stadler, "but we'd like to find out." Stalder also said that if someone came along offering to do a port of Linux to the SX-6i (which runs NEC's own UNIX variant Super UX) he would be interested. "But if someone came along and said they wanted to port Linux in two months, we'd probably give them two systems," he said. The main thrust, however, is towards research. Tempted academics have until 1 April to apply, and NEC should be able to make a decision within a month. If the scheme if a success, NEC may extend it; if not, then "we may just forget about it," said Stadler. Stadler believes that some researchers will be won over by the ease of programming and by the economics. NEC estimates that one of its processors is the equivalent of a dozen PC processors for the types of jobs to which it is applied, and Stadler acknowledges that a cluster of 12 PCs could be built for much less than the 120,000 euros that a single-processor SX-6i costs. "If you have a PC cluster and that does the job then you should keep it," said Stadler, "But you need to consider what 'doing the job' means. Programming a PC cluster is much more time consuming than programming a single system with shared memory." NEC's compiler, said Stadler, can also 'paralellise' code automatically to an extent, he said. "So if you account for researcher's time programming the system, our system is cheaper." Furthermore, said Stadler, the architecture of the SX-6i makes it possible for some applications to manage a sustained performance up to 75 percent of the theoretical limit. "On a PC cluster you are likely to be closer to 5 percent. On our machine you need to know very few rules. The most important is: keep it simple. It will start running very fast straight away." Application forms can be found here.

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