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IBM building self-aware supercomputer

Computer, heal thyself

IBM announced on Friday that it has begun assembling a colossal supercomputer called Blue Sky for NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research), in Boulder, Colorado.

Capable of predicting atmospheric climate changes, heating oil prices and global warming, Blue Sky will be equipped with IBM's eLiza technology by the end of next year. The goal of IBM's eLiza program is to give a computer the ability to repair itself and keep itself running without human intervention.

The first stage of Blue Sky's assembly at NCAR, codenamed Black Forest, will line up over 300 IBM SP supercomputers to deliver computing power equal to two trillion calculations per second, according to Peter Ungaro, IBM's vice-president of high-performance computing.

The second phase, scheduled to begin in autumn next year, will attach a mammoth array of IBM's p690 Unix servers to the SP systems, yielding a peak performance of seven trillion calculations per second, said Ungaro.

The p690 servers will be equipped with IBM's recently introduced eLiza 'self-healing' technology, making the NCAR supercomputer the first eLiza supercomputer built outside of IBM's labs.

"These p690 systems will have eLiza in them and will be capable of doing diagnostics on themselves, keeping themselves reliable," said Ungaro. "From our view, we try and build computers that don't go down. Putting self-healing technology in them helps us achieve that."

While Blue Sky is not the biggest supercomputer in the world, its eLiza technology will make it one of the most self-sufficient.

Experts have long predicted supercomputing systems would eventually become so fast and so complex that troubleshooting them will be only possible through the use of another supercomputer. This scenario is best described in a paper by Sun Microsystem’s chief scientist Bill Joy, titled Why the future does not need us.

When asked whether supercomputers like Blue Sky were reaching performance levels that exceeded an IT staff's ability to accurately debug them, Ungaro said, "That's a difficult question to answer, but that's what eLiza is for."

IBM's biggest system is a 12.3 teraflop, non-eLiza supercomputer based at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, said Ungaro. Building even bigger systems is, he says, just a matter of economics. "Right now we believe we can build a bigger supercomputer than anyone has the budget to buy. We don't see a ceiling."

But Ungaro predicts that, within five years, IBM should be assembling a supercomputer capable of calculating in petaflops. A supercomputer of this size would be faster than all 500 of the world's fastest supercomputers, multiplied by 10, he said.

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