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IBM, Sun, Cray Score Darpa Contracts

Supercomputer purveyors Sun Microsystems , IBM and Cray Wednesday announced that they have won a total of $146 million in awards from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for high-performance computing system concepts.

High-performance computing is the science of making large computers perform daunting numbers of calculations per-second, numbering in the trillions or even quadrillions, capable of coordinating wide-scale projects and tasks.

DARPA awarded the cash in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Interior as part of the second phase of its High Productivity Computing Systems (HPCS) Program, which focuses on research and development that will produce a design for a high performance computing system that is easier for programmers to use and scales to quadrillions of calculations per second (peta-scale computing).

DARPA said in a statement the HPCS program will fill a gap in high-end computing that it anticipates the Department of Defense will see as it moves from traditional HPTC technology to the future of quantum computing. DARPA expects the first fruits of these labors will appear in 2009-2010.

For rival systems vendors like IBM, Sun and Cray, the contracts are a big win at a time when spending of such volume is lower almost everywhere else. The companies are banking on contracts from the U.S. government, which are likely to have long lives. Sun, IBM and Cray are all working feverishly to come up with the fastest computing systems possible for such scientific projects as weather predictions and aerospace, but DARPA's challenge is to make systems easier to use as well.

To wit, Armonk, N.Y.'s IBM secured $53.3 million for a concept called PERCs, which stands for "productive, easy-to-use, reliable computing systems." IBM is adapting the system layers to application requirements and will conduct research to meet aggressive goals in performance and usability.

Santa Clara, Calif.'s Sun received $49.7 million to continue work on their integrated system approach known as Hero, which provides an easy-to-use architecture and programming tools. The architecture offers programmers quadrillions of calculations per second.

Seattle's Cray, with help from New Technology Endeavors, received $43.1 million to develop their Cascade project, which bundles hardware and software to make peta-scale computing easier. Hardware include new processor architectures to make more effective use of memory and to provide greater memory bandwidth. Software include support for shared and distributed memory programming models to speed new application creation.

The three-phase DARPA program consists of: phase one was a 12-month-long technology assessment; the current phase two is a 36-month R&D period designed that will conclude in technology risk reduction demonstrations and a preliminary design review for each system. The third phase is a 48-month development effort for those systems.