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IBM Helping Explore How Stars are Born

To paraphrase astronomer Carl Sagan, there are billions and billions of stars in the galaxy. But scientists hoping to find out how they got there in the first place are leaning on IBM for help.

The Armonk, N.Y.-based computer giant Thursday said it has sold five of its eServer p690 systems to the University of Rochester as part scientist's research into how stars are born and other high-science projects.

The largest of the five new multi-million dollar ultra-high-speed machines contains 32 POWER4 microprocessors and is operated by the Department of Computer Science. The unit will help researchers develop more power-efficient chips, as well as methods that let software run on different types of machines spread across the Internet. The system will also be used to develop a technique known as Complexity-Adaptive Processing, which reconfigures chips as they run, allowing them to meet the needs of software with as little energy as possible.

The other four supercomputers, each with 16 processors, are installed in the University's Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE). Scientists will use the supercomputers in concert with the University's powerful "Omega" laser in their quest to understand fusion. IBM said the new p690 systems will help create simulations of laser shots and develop a greater understanding of fusion as the nuclear process that powers stars.

"Interesting point here is that the laser itself uses more than 100 times the power consumed by the entire nation in a billionth of a second to blast millimeter-sized targets," said IBM Server Group spokesperson Charles Zinkowski.

Using one of the IBM eServer p690s and software from the department's InterWeave project, astronomers will create incredibly detailed animations depicting the birth of stars. In the future, the p690 and InterWeave said they will serve as the foundation for three-dimensional virtual reality applications.

The department's machine was awarded to the university through a grant from IBM's Shared University Research (SUR) program, which Big Blue doles out to colleges to facilitate research projects in areas of mutual interest.

Another project at LLE aims to make it easier for processors inside a supercomputer to synchronize their activities, which may lead to dramatic improvements in the speed of certain database systems and high-end operating systems.

University researchers are also using IBM's AIX5L UNIX operating system and other software products provided via IBM's Scholars program.