Researchers said Monday that they have designed a supercomputer that can handle a staggering 1 trillion mathematical operations per second, a breakthrough computer that experts likened to the running of the first four-minute mile.
The $55-million computer, designed by the Energy Department and Intel Corp., will largely be used by government scientists to simulate nuclear weapons tests that are now banned by international treaty, officials said. Researchers said the machine could also be used for complicated weather forecasting, genetic research, space research and other sophisticated experiments.
"This milestone was once thought unachievable, certainly within this century," Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary said at a news conference. "It's an extraordinary achievement."
The Intel computer is almost three times faster than the current supercomputing record holder, a machine at a Japanese university designed by Hitachi Ltd. The new supercomputer can handle 667 million instructions in the time it takes a bullet to travel a foot, researchers say.
Santa Clara-based Intel accomplished the feat by essentially wiring together thousands of today's most powerful desktop computers. Using a technique known as "massively parallel computing," engineers linked 7,264 high-end versions of Intel's Pentium processor--the mainstay of most PCs--and programmed them to operate in concert.
Although parallel technology has been used in supercomputers for several years, making the technique work with so many standard processors has been a complicated and elusive goal. It took Intel and Energy Department researchers almost two years of software and hardware development to transform their theory into reality.
The system eventually will comprise more than 9,000 Pentium Pro processors (each running at 200 megahertz) and will be able to operate at 1.4 teraflops--or 1.4 trillion operations per second--Intel Vice President Edward A. Masi said. It will be housed at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque.
Intel researchers said the supercomputer project shows for the first time how massive machines can be built from common microchips instead of the costly and elaborate chips that have gone into earlier machines.
Intel shares fell $5.125 to close at $127.25 on Nasdaq.