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POWERFUL MACHINE
THE WORLD'S 22ND FASTEST SUPERCOMPUTER IS LOCATED AT THE AMHERST CAMPUS
OF THE UNIVERSITY AT BUFFALO, ACCORDING TO THE LATEST RANKING BY TOP500.ORG

Big corporations have the Standard & Poor's 500. The super-rich are listed in the Forbes 400.

For supercomputers, the definitive ranking is published by Top500.org -- and the University at Buffalo has jumped to its highest spot ever on that list.

UB's Amherst campus is home to the world's 22nd fastest computer, and the fourth most powerful machine at a university, according to the latest Top500 list, which is being unveiled this week at a supercomputing conference in Baltimore.

"We're making a big splash," said Russ Miller, director of UB's supercomputer center, who is attending the conference. "Everybody's asking about Buffalo."

The attention is going to a Dell "cluster" computer, powered by 600 Pentium processors, that lists for $3 million. UB's Center for Computational Research is ramping up the machine, which was installed this summer.

It is the second high-powered computer switched on by UB this year. In September, Dell founder Michael Dell traveled to Buffalo to help unveil a cluster computer devoted to bioinformatics research. Powered by large numbers of relatively inexpensive processors, the Dell machines run alongside hardware from IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems.

Recognition of UB's number-crunching muscle should help the university attract top researchers -- and the grant dollars that fuel their projects, officials said. High-powered computers are increasingly used to model real-world phenomena that can't be seen in a laboratory, from global climate change to the atomic structure of drug molecules.

"Being on the list means being faster -- it's a testament to computational ability," said Reza Rooholamini, an engineering director with Dell's enterprise systems group.

When it opened in 1999, UB's center had computing power of 60 billion calculations per second from its IBM Corp. and Silicon Graphics workhorses. The Dell cluster being switched on now is 48 times as powerful as the earlier machines. Before the latest edition of the Top500, other lists have recognized UB as a world-class number cruncher. GapCon, published by Gunter Ahrendt Purchasing Consulting, calls UB the world's eighth-largest supercomputing site.

The Top500 ranking, which is based on the tested performance of individual machines, is the most widely accepted authority on supercomputer speed.

UB also appears at No. 187 on the new Top500 list, reflecting part of the Dell cluster used by bioinformatics center director Jeffrey Skolnick. That machine is actually larger than the higher-ranking Dell cluster, Miller said, but was unavailable for comprehensive testing.

One of the tasks of the newest Dell cluster will be to help develop the next generation of models that predict groundwater flows -- and groundwater contamination, researchers said.

"The kind of problems we want to solve are getting increasingly complex," said Alan J. Rabideau, associate professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering at UB

Existing models deal with simplified versions of how pollution spreads in a plume from a single source. With 600 processors, the new machine will be able to tackle problems that would take years on a PC, Rabideau said. That gives it the capacity to look at real-world conditions where there are multiple streams, wells and lakes, and where chemicals interact with each other while they ride underground flows.

The UB research group is building a mathematical model of the Great Lakes basin as a test of its modeling techniques, Rabideau said. The work is in the third year of a four-year, $1 million grant funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

UB's high grade on the Top500 list is likely to be fleeting, as other large machines prepare to come online. For example, IBM announced Tuesday that it is building two computers for the Department of Energy more powerful than all the present Top500 computers combined.

Started in 1993, Top500.org is a collaboration of computer scientists at the University of Tennessee, the University of Mannhein in Germany, and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center in Berkeley, Calif.

Rankings on the list are based on a software test called "Linpack," a series of linear equations. It takes a machine several hours and trillions of calculations to complete the test, Dell's Rooholamini said. The Linpack score indicates how a machine's processors, memory and interconnections work together to solve scientific problems.

UB's high rank -- one place ahead of Britain's military atomic lab -- was achieved by getting unusually high performance from the cluster's Pentium 4 processors, Miller said. Using computational methods from scientists at the University of Texas, UB's cluster performed 2 trillion floating-point operations per second, representing 70 percent of the cluster's peak capacity. The typical supercomputer operates at about 50 percent of peak, he said.

In addition to groundwater modeling, the cluster will be used for problems involving protein folding, fluid dynamics, and determining molecular structure, UB said.

e-mail: fwilliams@buffnews.com

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