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Big Blue's SMASHing Blue Gene

December 8, 1999
Web posted at: 10:05 a.m. EST (1505 GMT)

by Nancy Weil

Blue Gene
The new IBM computer, nicknamed "Blue Gene", will be capable of more than one quadrillion operations a second.  

(IDG) -- IBM has unveiled plans for "Blue Gene," a $100 million research project to build a supercomputer with 500 times the computing power of today's machines.

If the project succeeds, the computer will be able to handle more than 1 quadrillion operations per second, or one petaflop, which is a million billion floating point operations per second.

IBM officials said at a press conference that they will use a "radical" new computer design method and architecture called SMASH (for Simple, Many and Self-Healing). The supercomputer is expected to be ready in four or five years.

IBM researchers intend to build the computer with more than 1 million processors, placing 32 ultra-fast processors on one chip. They will use a two-foot by two-foot board for 64 ultra-fast chips, capable of reaching speeds of 2 teraflops, officials said. Taking eight such boards and placing them in 6-foot-high racks -- for 16 teraflops of computing power -- the completed Blue Gene will be made of 64 racks connected to reach the overall one petaflop of power, said Ambuj Goyal, vice president of computer science for IBM Research.

If such computer power were applied to bandwidth, it would be able to download the contents of the entire Internet in one second, Goyal said.

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If the machine works as researchers think it will, chess masters ought to look out -- Blue Gene would be 1,000 times more powerful than the Deep Blue machine that defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. It also would be some 2 million times more powerful than the current top-of-the-line desktops.

But Blue Gene would have a higher purpose than playing games, albeit intellectually challenging games. Indeed, officials said today that the intent of "Deep Blue" was to lead to advances in computing and to aid science.

The first science project earmarked for Blue Gene is to model folding of human proteins. Better understanding of how proteins fold is likely to give medical researchers clues into diseases and possibly into cures, as they learn how it is that particular diseases attack cells.

"With that computer, we're going to unlock the secrets of how our bodies work," said Paul Horn, senior vice president of IBM Research. "We're going to try with this computer to fold the fundamental proteins that make up life."

Researchers have not yet chosen which protein they will fold when Blue Gene is finished a few years down the road, but Horn said that simple proteins will be tested before then. By the end of next year, researchers will have made enough advances on the project to start work with the simpler proteins, he said.

When the supercomputer is finished, one future result could be that doctors might take swabs from the inside of the mouths of people feeling unwell and put such samples into a computer. The computer in turn "can tell not only what ails you, but you get a drug that is optimized for your own personal DNA," Horn said.

Hardware innovation

The need for speed?


That time is "really not that far off, and advances of the type that we hope to have coming out of this computer, Blue Gene, can help set the stage," Horn said, adding that increasingly, "information technology is becoming the language of biology" just as mathematics became the language of physics years ago. Other research applications will include advances in weather forecasting and airline safety, Horn said.

Goyal said that the project will lead to improvements in computing generally with advances seen in PCs and servers as a result of the Blue Gene initiative.

Nancy Weil is a U.S. correspondent for the IDG News Service in Boston.

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