A supercomputer in every garage?
January 20, 2000
January 20, 2000
by David Essex
(IDG) -- Have you ever wanted your very own shock-proof supercomputer for crash-free gaming or Web browsing? Or one that you can put in the basement to quietly control your home security system, power a network, and play digital movies?
It could happen soon, says Patmos International. The company's Perpetua supercomputer's $99,000 price is a fraction of what supercomputer biggies like Cray (owned by SGI), IBM, Fujitsu, NEC, Stratus, and Tandem (owned by Compaq) charge.
Supercomputers for the rest of us (...who happen to have $99K to spend)
Patmos Chief Executive Officer James Gatzka says he was determined to build a supercomputer for everyone when he tried in 1988 to buy a system from Thinking Machines and was told only government agencies and research organizations could buy one.
So he set out to build his own supercomputer with off-the-shelf parts.
After lining up help and financial backing, Patmos shipped the first Perpetua about a year ago. A division of Honeywell has bought one, and other companies are interested, Gatzka says.
Supercomputers are systems with numerous processors, huge memories and storage, and special parallel-processing software for performing the world's most complex calculations, like those needed for weather forecasting, nuclear simulations, and scientific research.
They typically cost millions of dollars, though in recent years more affordable supercomputers are being pieced together using servers configured to work as one. The NonStop Himalaya technology from Compaq's Tandem division is an example.
Standard parts, special software
But Patmos says the Perpetua is even less expensive, in part because it uses 200-MHz K6-2 chips from Advanced Micro Devices, connected by a 1-gigabit-per-second Fibre Channel bus.
The $99,000 model has 11 processors, but Patmos also sells a four-CPU Perpetua for around $19,000. "We think we'll have a four-layer supercomputer for $3995 before long," Gatzka says.
A standard Perpetua computer has eight hot-swappable nodes that work like miniservers. If the Perpetua's internal sensors detect a potential problem or failure of a node (or one is removed), the system transfers the workload to the others.
Patmos's Limbix software, based on the Linux operating system, monitors and manages workloads using neural networking and fuzzy logic, two artificial intelligence methods. Because it is based on the Intel x86 platform, the Perpetua can run Windows, UNIX, and Linux programs -- simultaneously.
Each node has separate hard drives for application software and data, and the entire system has two uninterruptible power supplies and a backup generator. The cabinet was built to withstand a major earthquake, and the tape-backup drive is fire- and waterproof.
While early customers are likely to be "24-by-7" companies like electronic-commerce sites and online traders that can't afford a minute of down time, Gatzka says others will also want the Perpetua's speed, stability, and long life, especially when cheaper models arrive in coming months.
Gatzka says he'll have an upgrade containing 1-GHz CPUs within six months. "We believe everyone should be empowered," he says.
The Perpetua's advantages are its relatively low cost, the universality of its main operating system, and clever system-management software, says James McNatt, a securities analyst at the Legg Mason investment firm in Baltimore.
"What attracted me to the Perpetua is that it uses artificial intelligence extensions to a Linux operating system to do intelligent load balancing, and that's unique," says McNatt, who follows supercomputing vendors. "Our information technology department is very interested in it."
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