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Primer: Tera-Level Computing

By Kevin Fogarty  |  Posted 2004-09-01 Print this article Print

How much power do you need? You may have to buy that supercomputer after all.

  • What is it? The next major stage in the evolution of computing, in which improvements to existing technology will allow computers to routinely process trillions of calculations per second (teraflops). Hardware will also be able to store trillions of bytes of data (terabytes) and communicate the results over networks that transfer trillions of bits per second (terabits).

  • Why should I care? The transition from giga-level to tera-level computing will change the way corporations use computers, the data they crunch and the networks on which that data flows. Researchers are already using teraflop computers to track the paths of individual photons in a beam of light and to design molecules for new drugs. That kind of power in the business world would make it possible to mine demographic data for every person on Earth, or produce 3D renderings so fine-grained that engineers could model every inch of wire, pipe and frame in a 100-story office building. View the PDF -- Turn off pop-up blockers!

  • Do I really need all this power? Yes, you do—or will—to access and use increasingly large pools of data, for one thing. Researchers at Intel estimate that the Internet now holds about 532 terabytes of data, and that another 5,000 terabytes (or 5 exabytes) reside on the world's hard drives. Search engines powerful enough to sift through that much data, storage devices big enough to hold it, and networks big enough to transfer it will all be measured in units starting with "tera," if not "exa" or even "barra." Intel CTO Pat Gelsinger predicted in February that we will eventually need to use the term "barrabyte," which equals 1 byte times 10 to the 27th power—a 1 with 27 zeros after it.

  • Isn't this futuristic? Yes and no. Most businesses will need that kind of power only for specialized uses, such as the seismic imaging that oil companies use to improve their oil exploration, or ambitious data-mining efforts. Staples approached the teraflop level in 2001 with a data warehouse designed to track sales trends in the more than 30,000 products it sells online and in 1,600 stores. Its IBM SP1, however, while still classed as a supercomputer, did not break the teraflop barrier.

  • Who is delivering the technology? Cray sells a commercial supercomputer with more than 1.4 teraflops of power. And Cisco has produced a router called the CRS-1 that can handle 1.2 terabits a second and can be grouped in clusters capable of routing 92 terabits a second. That kind of capacity is designed only for the backbones of the biggest telecommunications companies, but according to analysts, networking gear of that speed will eventually hit corporate networks.

    Some high-performance-computing addicts are already putting together huge clusters of relatively cheap computers to deliver multiple teraflops of computing power. The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, for one, has combined 1,058 IBM Opteron servers and 520 Intel Itanium 2 machines into a Linux cluster with more than 11 teraflops of power.

    Think how fast your son could run Doom 3 or Halo 2 on that kind of setup.

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