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From November 28, 2005, News-Sentinel

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All eyes turn to ORNL's 'Jaguar'

Can supercomputer hit goal of 100 trillion calculations per second?

OAK RIDGE - Oak Ridge National Laboratory officials aren't sure if their hotshot computer, a Cray XT3 known as "Jaguar," will reach next year's stated goal of 100 teraflops - 100 trillion calculations per second.

"It's going to be a challenge, but I think we're going to get close," said Thomas Zacharia, the associate lab director and computer chief.

Part of the challenge is federal funding for the National Center for Computational Sciences at ORNL.

Congress boosted the 2006 funding from the $25 million proposed by the Bush administration up to $55 million, and Zacharia said Oak Ridge officials were thankful for support of the leadership-class computing initiative. But the funding level is still short of earlier targets, he said.

"Like everything else, there are peaks and valleys," he said.

The Cray XT3 was ranked 10th on the recently released list of the world's fastest computers, and it already is the fastest U.S. machine available for open scientific uses. There are higher aspirations, even with a tight budget.

ORNL plans to expand the supercomputer from its current configuration of 56 cabinets to about 120 cabinets in the coming months and roughly double the number of processors. Oak Ridge officials expect the Cray's peak processing capability to jump from about 25 teraflops to somewhere in the range of 100.

Whatever the outcome, the lab's success with scientific computing is apparent.

"Things are going very well," said Zacharia, who was honored with a top individual award earlier this month at the World Supercomputing Conference in Seattle.

There's a stunning list of research results achieved with the Oak Ridge stable of computers during the past couple of years. The work ranges from fusion energy to global climate change, from nanoscience to astrophysics.

"After all, it's all about the science," Zacharia said.

In one instance, an Oak Ridge computer made practical the first 3-D numerical simulations of an ignition flame, which should help manufacturers design next-generation combustion devices. In another case, chemists used the computing power to gain uniquely precise views of molecular structures - information that may someday be used to combat genetic diseases.

"I think Oak Ridge is the place to be to do science in the United States," Zacharia said with enthusiasm.

While much attention has been paid to the speedy Jaguar, which may soon become the world's fastest computer for scientific uses, Zacharia said another Oak Ridge supercomputer - a Cray X1E known as "Phoenix" - has very special capabilities.

The Cray X1E has vector architecture similar to Japan's Earth Simulator, and it is particularly adept at running computer codes for climate models and programs related to nuclear fusion.

The ORNL computer chief noted that all teraflops are not equal, meaning that some eye-popping calculating speeds don't translate into important research.

The Cray X1E is the fastest computer on the planet for certain applications, he said, even though the system's peak capability is "only" about 18.5 teraflops - ranked No. 17 on the world list.

"It allows us to do science that cannot be done easily on other machines," Zacharia said.

There are no plans to "grow" the Cray X1E supercomputer beyond its current setup, but Oak Ridge officials still expect it to be a useful research machine for another four or five years - an extraordinarily long life in the high-end computing world.

"Until Cray comes up with a new vector machine, this is going to be a unique tool for science," Zacharia said.

ORNL has an ongoing partnership with Cray, but he said the lab also has strong relationships with IBM and SGI and others.

"We're an equal-opportunity collaborator," the lab computer chief said.

The Center for Computational Sciences is considered a national user facility, and the U.S. Department of Energy is expected to soon announce the list of research groups who will have access to the Oak Ridge supercomputers in 2006.

Currently, computer time is evenly split between scientists from U.S. universities and those from the national laboratories. Zacharia said he expects similar arrangements for next year.

"We'll have some return customers," he said.

Senior writer Frank Munger may be reached at 865-342-6329.

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