Researchers build 'desktop supercomputer'

Researchers at the University of Maryland say their prototype runs 100 times faster than a PC and is simple enough for a high school student to program

What if your desktop computer could run 100 times faster than a PC and were simple enough for a high school student to program?

That's not an idle question. Researchers at the University of Maryland have built a prototype of a "desktop supercomputer" that can do just that.

The new computer is at least three years from reaching commercial markets, but it could have a big effect in industries that process large loads of data. They include the pharmaceutical, aerospace, military and entertainment industries, for applications such as drug modeling, computer-aided design, and digital content creation.

The Explicit Multi-Threading (XMT) computer combines the decades-old philosophy of using parallel computing algorithms with the huge number of transistors in modern processors.

The machine uses three field-programmable gate array chips from Xilinx to represent a network of 64 ARM processors that control dozens of threads of simultaneous computation, says Uzi Vishkin, a professor at the A. James Clark School of Engineering who built the machine with his graduate students.

The team is now trying to shrink the prototype, a license-plate-size board running at 75 MHz, down to a fingernail-size version running between 1GHz and 2GHz.

Team members took the first step toward that goal this summer by commissioning IBM to manufacture a CMOS silicon application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) with an on-chip data interconnect network. The venture is funded with a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, Vishkin says.

A kid could do it

Even if they succeed in building a smaller version of the prototype, the researchers will face the challenge of teaching programmers how to write software for a multithreaded system.

Many commercial software companies are already puzzling over a similar problem today as they try to adapt to the latest dual- and quad-core processors from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices.

However, Vishkin says his system will be easier to program than applications for commercial multicore chips because the XMT algorithms appear to the operating system to be a single thread. "If you build it in a way that people cannot program it, it remains in the ivory tower of theory," he says.

To prove his point, before the end of this year, Vishkin is planning to teach a class of high school students how to program the XMT using a version of the C programming language. He will teach college students to program the prototype in the first quarter of 2008.

User wish list

A desktop supercomputer would be a godsend for students and artists who rely on computers to process huge amounts of data in the creation of high-resolution digital pictures and movies, says Jon Stiles, director of campus technology at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design in Denver.

"That would absolutely revolutionize our animation department," Stiles says, adding that currently, students at the college often have to wait for nine or 10 hours while their PCs process the data in a new design.

"We're constantly looking for ways to eliminate bottlenecks in production," he says.

Stiles warns, however, that a parallel supercomputer would have to meet three conditions before the college could use it. It would have to offer vast data storage, be capable of running standard commercial software such as Adobe Systems' Creative Suite 3 and consume the same amount of energy as current computers.

If those conditions were met, Stiles says, "my campus IT support manager would do back flips."

Energy use shouldn't be a problem, says Vishkin. "Based on back-of-the-envelope calculations, we believe that each cluster we have will consume not much more power than a standard core," he says. "So we will be competitive on power draw with the same generation of multicore chips."

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