Super Servers

From engineering/scientific niche to general large computer status

As the nature of IT changes, more commercial applications are being driven by the Internet. Accompanying that shift is a growing need by business and industry for parallel processing and multi-terabyte database systems.

The terrain is changing, particularly in industries such as financial services, which increasingly relies on sophisticated business intelligence systems. As businesses explore foundations beyond Microsoft's Windows operating systems, they require more complex answers. Enter, supercomputers.

IBM's supercomputers represent its high-end Unix server line, the RS/6000 SP. They are really "multi-computers" that provide ways to manage numerous IT resources and parallel databases from one central control point.

Scalable system design, increased processing speed, large-scale computing, and multi-terabyte data management remain cornerstones of these servers. Add to this ongoing advances in analytic methods and software infrastructure, and the market is ripe for supercomputer applications in science, engineering and business.

It would be great for IBM if it were the only major player to recognize the role of supercomputers in the B2B marketplace, and respond to it. But major competitors such as Intel, Unisys, Hitachi, Compaq and Sun Microsystems are quickly crowding the space, premiering their own, latest supercomputers.

Still, IBM is holding its own in the research and marketing arena. Big Blue has launched and promoted a whirlwind of activity in recent months, designed to propel its supercomputers out of back room laboratories, and into a myriad of commercial and technical applications.

IBM's Nick Donofrio, senior vice president and group executive of technology and manufacturing, calls supercomputers "large scale computational power" used to solve the most complex business and scientific applications. That's why you won't find the term "deep computing" far removed. Supercomputers are designed to tackle huge amounts of data by breaking it into smaller pieces, and processing it in parallel on a number of nodes.

You may recall that "Deep Blue" defeated Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion. Now IBM Research has a Deep Computing Institute, devoted to solving complex business problems such as insurance underwriting, web serving—and a need by tennis devotees to access the Wimbledon Web site in real time.

IBM's SP systems powered Wimbledon's Web site this year that accommodated 281 million hits in one day—and 2.3 billion hits over the 14-day tournament. The interactive technology enabled live radio broadcasts and real-time results. An IBM SP system will also house the Web site for the upcoming Olympic games.

More announcements are coming. Just this summer, IBM premiered what it calls "the world's fastest RS/6000 SP supercomputer," the ASCI White, capable of 12 trillion calculations per second. The U.S. Department of Energy will reportedly use the $110 million machine to ensure the integrity of the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile. The ASCI White breaks new processing speed barriers for IBM. And get this—it has the capacity to hold six times the entire contents of the Library of Congress!

Certainly, IBM's Research Division has often shown a forward-looking – some might even term aggressive – approach to emerging technologies. Now IBM's marketing muscle is backing that up. This summer, IBM begins a multi-million dollar advertising campaign, to grow its position in the high-end Unix server market—IBM's attempt to break out of a pack of powerhouses, with Sun Microsystems as the reputed leader.

IBM's ads will promote, for example, its new Power3 processors, which incorporate copper interconnect technology for higher, faster performance—another major advance for IBM

While consumers and small office/home office (SOHO) users aren't likely to purchase supercomputers anytime soon, they are likely to benefit from their use in the fields of health care, science, aviation... the list goes on. The copper technology, alone, is going a long way to accelerate that increased use.

IBM's supercomputers consistently rank among the top 500, as judged by an independent watchdog group. Yet the competition for business in this high-end market remains fierce.

It appears IBM, known for its computing prowess in the '50s, '60s and '70s, is stepping up to the plate in the new millennium and once again challenging conventional limits.

Sam Albert is president of Sam Albert Associates (Scarsdale, N.Y.), a consulting firm that specializes in developing strategic corporate relationships. samalbert@samalbert.com.