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IBM Inks Major Supercomputing Deal with GM

Extending its Power architecture into the automotive field, IBM on Wednesday inked a major supercomputing contract with General Motors , agreeing to provide 145 p655 servers for the automaker to use in auto development and virtual crash simulations.

Total cost of the contract, valued in the millions of dollars, was not made public. The servers, which will run at nine teraflops, or trillions of calculations per second, will work in congress as a supercomputer and will perform tasks twice as fast as the previous IBM pSeries 690 systems GM began using in 2002.

The p655 package for GM will include a combination of 8-way and 16-way machines, which will be powered by Power4+. GM will procure an additional p655 machines, which will be powered by POWER 5 chips later this year. The complete supercomputer will run AIX and use more than 2,000 processors total, with chip speeds of 1.7 gigahertz compared to the $1.5 GHz of previous pSeries used by GM.

The compute power delivered by the new machine is equivalent to doing one calculation per second on a calculator for more than 285,000 years, IBM officials said on a conference call.

The increased processing speed will significantly boost GM's time-to-market in a highly competitive auto industry. Bob Cruz, executive director of vehicle integration for GM, said the high-performance computing contract with IBM will help the company roll out 29 new or redesigned vehicles (a new vehicle every 22 days).

Cruz said on the call that the machines will also reduce the number of physical crash tests the company performs by 85 percent. At $500,000 per crash test, the cost savings of the virtual crash simulations is substantial.

Digital simulation and design modifications will also be conducted much faster, reducing testing time from months and weeks to hours and minutes. Eighty percent of the supercomputer's power will be applied to crash or safety analysis, and crash simulations that normally take three days can be completed overnight, GM officials said.

"GM has purchased the automotive industry's fastest supercomputing from IBM," Cruz said on a conference call. "This supercomputer is the latest tool GM is providing its engineers to drive faster, better product development."

In one example, the Pontiac Solstice was created in record time and at low cost using GM's computer network, the executive said, through a heavy reliance on digital design and validation. In a current example, GM was able to redesign the surface of its Chevrolet Equinox model in only 15 weeks in the model of the vehicle's development process using IBM servers.

Even though IBM is replacing its own servers with new, more powerful machines, the contract renewal is a coup of sorts for IBM, which is seeking to maintain its status as a superpower of large-scale systems, an arena where HP , Cray and Sun Microsystems also compete.

Bill Pulleybank, director of IBM's Deep Computing Institute, put the power of the GM supercomputer in perspective on the call. "Anytime we get to a computer that is above one teraflop, it begins to count in the pantheon of the largest supercomputers in the world," Pulleyblank said. "When we get close to 10 teraflops, this puts us in the scale in what is typically obtained in the national laboratories or in the very large computing centers.

By way of comparison, Pulleyblank noted that IBM's ASCI-White was the largest supercomputer in the world a few years ago at 13 teraflops, "so this is a very large supercomputing capability."

The Armonk, N.Y., company already enjoys success in creating supercomputers for research and scientific institutions, but solidifying this contract with GM crystallizes Big Blue's presence in the commercial space as well.

The endorsement of the POWER 4+ and forthcoming POWER5 chips is also a strategy win for IBM, which has been aggressively pushing its own architecture to be as pervasive as possible: POWER has found placement in anything from consumer electronics, such as gaming consoles, to large-scale enterprise deployments, including the new pact with GM.