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Power to the masses

With more supercomputers using industry-standard systems such as Opteron and Itanium, mega computing power is finally making its way to the mass market.

Are supercomputers going mass market? According to industry observers and research figures, this may indeed be the case.

More supercomputers today are being built on industry-standard, Linux on x86-architecture processor platforms. This is a marked change from five years back when the high-performance computing (HPC) industry was dominated by proprietary systems, said Winston Prather, vice president and general manager at Hewlett-Packard's HPC division.

"The (HPC) market is going through a tremendous technology change," he told ZDNet Asia in an interview. "There's a transition from (the use of) proprietary to industry-standard systems running on AMD's Opteron and Intel's Itanium and Xeon (processors). This is driven by price-performance (demands)."

Supercomputers are a class of computers that perform at, or near the highest speed currently recorded in the market. In short, they are the fastest computing systems available, and are typically used to perform simulations in petroleum exploration and production, electronic design, nuclear energy research and meteorology. They are also used to run real-time animated graphics.

Wave of commodity systems
The key advantage of the move toward industry-standard systems is that supercomputers are now available to the masses.

Rajnish Arora, associate director of IDC Asia-Pacific's enterprise servers and workstation division, noted that the trend toward industry-standard systems has helped drive the supercomputing market in the past few years.

"The key trend we've seen in the last few years, in the HPC space, is a whole, dramatic shift toward commodity-based platforms away from large Unix, vector systems," he said. For instance, universities that previously could not afford the multi-million dollar systems today can assemble supercomputers on the x86 architecture, he explained.

Currently, about 333 or 66 percent of the world's top 500 supercomputers use Intel processors, according to the latest edition of the Top500 List of the world's fastest supercomputers. IBM Power processors are the next most popular, followed by Hewlett-Packard's (HP) PA RISC processors, and AMD processors.

Even Microsoft is jumping onto the bandwagon. In April, the company announced it will release Windows Server 2003 Compute Cluster Edition, supporting 64-bit x86 processors in 2006.

The move is not surprising, considering that the worldwide market for technical servers--also called HPC--was worth US$7.25 billion in 2004, according to IDC.

The research firm's vice president, Christopher G. Willard, told ZDNet Asia: "We are currently forecasting a 10.2 percent growth in revenue this year, over 2004, which would lead to a US$7.99 billion market for 2005." Revenue through the first half of 2005 is already at US$4.21 billion, placing the market on pace to exceed expectations, he added.

Leading vendors in the first half of 2005 are HP with 31 percent revenue share, IBM with 27 percent, and Dell Computer and Sun Microsystems tied at 12 percent share each.

IDC does not have figures on the Asia-Pacific HPC market, said Arora, but he estimated the regional market is still a small proportion of the total worldwide market.

"But there's a lot of growth happening at this stage, especially in countries like China and India, Korea, and Singapore, where there's some activity," he said.

And while Microsoft is eyeing a piece of the market with the impending release of its Compute Cluster edition of Windows, its biggest rival Linux is already making its rounds.

According to Prather, half of HP's total HPC business is based on the Linux platform, while the remaining half sold are Unix-based boxes.

He added that Linux is by far the faster growing segment. By next year, he estimated, HP would sell more Linux-based HPCs than Unix-based systems.

Dennis Ang, general manager of HP's HPC group in Asia Pacific and Japan, also noted that close to 70 percent of the HPC systems sold in the Asia-Pacific are Linux-based systems.