Funding a faster supercomputer Essay

Getting a group of people to work together efficiently is a
demanding task that often requires a skilled manager. Computer
designers and programmers are now looking for the electronic equivalent
of such a manager to cope with “multiprocessor” computers.
Each of the many processors built into this type of computer can
independently retrieve data from memory locations, do arithmetic
operations like addition or perform other simple operations. Yet the
computer must quickly come up with a “consensus”–a single,
correct answer. Last week, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the
National Science Foundation awarded grants totaling $9 million to the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to pursue this problem.

David Kuck, director of the university’s new Center for
Super-computing Research, and his colleagues plan to build an
experimental supercomputer, called the “Cedar” system, to test
their ideas. The problem is to connect the computer hardware and
software in such a way that all the multiprocessing occurs in an
organized, productive and fast way, says Kuck. This project is unusual
because, to achieve high speeds, it relies on clever ways of linking the
processors and then writing computer programs that take advantage of
these arrangements rather than on advances in computer chip technology.

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DOE also helps fund two other large supercomputing research
programs. At the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena,
Charles L. Seitz, Geoffrey Fox and their colleagues aim to build a
computer that fits on a desktop but still has 50 times the power of a
Cray-1 supercomputer at a fraction of the Cray’s current price. The
researchers already have one experimental machine, completed last
October and dubbed “The Cosmic Cube,” in which 64 identical
microprocessors are connected in a communications network based on a
six-dimensional cube.

At New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical
Sciences in New York City, researchers are working on the
“ULTRAcomputer” project. In this “dataflow”
computer, hundreds of thousands of processors share one massive memory,
communicating with it through a switching network that keeps the
processors synchronized. Instead of searching the memory for the data
needed to do a certain computation, each processor patiently waits until
the essential bits of data arrive so that it can do its job (SN:
6/16/84, p. 378).


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