Turn That PC Into a Supercomputer
A small chip-design firm will unveil a new processor Tuesday it says will transform ordinary desktop PCs and laptops into supercomputers.
At the Microprocessor Forum in San Jose, California, startup ClearSpeed Technologies will detail its CS301, a new high-performance, low-power floating-point processor.
The new chip is a parallel processor capable of performing 25 billion floating-point operations per second, or 25 gigaflops.
According to the company, the chip has the potential to bring supercomputer performance to the desktop.
An ordinary desktop PC outfitted with six PCI cards, each containing four of the chips, would perform at about 600 gigaflops (or more than half a teraflop).
At this level of performance, the PC would qualify as one of the 500 most powerful supercomputers in the world.
"That's a supercomputer on the desktop," said Simon McIntosh-Smith, ClearSpeed's director of architecture.
The souped-up PC would cost about $25,000, ClearSpeed said. By comparison, most of the supercomputers on the Top 500 list are clusters of hundreds of processors and cost millions of dollars.
The most powerful supercomputer in the world, Japan's Earth Simulator, operates at about 35 teraflops, consumes a warehouse-size space and cost $350 million.
Soon to be in prototype, the chip may be on the market within a year, ClearSpeed said. The company, which is based in Los Gatos, California, and Bristol, United Kingdom, said it will be providing prototypes to computer manufacturers by the end of the year.
When it comes to market, the chip will likely be sold to consumers as a co-processor -- an add-on PCI card that works in parallel with a PC's main processor, just like an add-on graphics card. But instead of boosting graphics performance, the chip will help compute intensive math calculations.
Similar capabilities are already built into Apple's G4 and G5 Macs, which have a floating-point co-processor called AltiVec, which handles complex, data-intensive calculations for the main processor. But whereas AltiVec is four-way parallel, ClearSpeed's chip is 64-way, the company said.
"You might class it as a big evolutionary step of AltiVec," said Mike Calise, ClearSpeed's president.
The second generation of the chip will be 128-way parallel, and then 256, and so on, Calise said.
He said server manufacturers are looking at the chip with a view to building petaflop machines -- monster supercomputers capable of a quadrillion floating-point operations a second -- or the equivalent of 25 Earth Simulators.
A petaflop machine based on the second generation of the ClearSpeed chip would take up about 20 server racks, the company said.
Calise said computer manufacturers are very excited about the new chip.
"Right now it's awe, shock and when can I get my hands on it?" Calise said.
ClearSpeed said the new chip is also very low-power, operating at about 2 watts, which would allow it to run off a laptop battery and wouldn't require special cooling.
"At 3 watts, you could put it in a PCMCIA card," said McIntosh-Smith. "With two chips on a PC Card, you can have 50 gigaflops on a laptop, running off a battery. That's equivalent to a small Linux cluster on your notebook."
McIntosh-Smith said that down the line, a PC Card with a pair of second-generation chips would perform at about 200 gigaflops, which is equivalent to a big Linux cluster and would nearly qualify the laptop for today's Top 500 supercomputers list.
Appropriately, the chip will be described at the Microprocessor Forum during a discussion of extreme processors.
Though supercomputer performance on a desktop machine may seem like overkill, Calise said there is ever-growing demand in science, government and industry, especially Hollywood, for more-powerful computers.
"If everything they say is true, they really do kick butt," said Will Strauss, an analyst with Forward Concepts of Tempe, Arizona. "The proof of the pudding is in the eating, of course, but they do have a very well-thought-out architecture."
Strauss said the PCMCIA card intrigued him. "It's the first time I've seen a reasonable way to get that much power into a laptop," he said. "That it is low-power enough to bring that kind of processing power to a laptop is remarkable."
Strauss warned that writing software for the chip's complex architecture might be a stumbling block, but the company has assured him that its compiler makes it easy to program.
"It's a refreshing new approach to high-powered chips, and they seem to be pretty well ahead with it, too," Strauss said. "I'm pretty impressed. I've seen lots of things like this over the years, but this breaks new ground."