Released 10/16/98

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UPTON, NY - The fastest multi-purpose non-commercial supercomputer in the world was unveiled today at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory.

With a top operating speed of 600 billion calculations per second, or 0.6 teraflops, the supercomputer is the 12th fastest over all in the world. At a cost of only $1.8 million, it is also one of the least expensive.

Scientists will use the machine to carry out forefront physics research, some so complicated it can only be done using the world's fastest computers.

The computer was designed and built by scientists and computer specialists from Columbia University and BNL, and funded by the Japanese RIKEN laboratory as part of its support of the RIKEN-BNL Research Center established in 1997 at BNL.

"This computer is a tribute to the creativity and resourcefulness of BNL, Columbia University and RIKEN Laboratory scientists who created it," said Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson. "This generation of machine and much larger ones soon to follow will be the new tools of discovery and innovation for science and society to solve complex problems in global climate, energy, technologies and basic research."

Called the RIKEN-BNL QCD supercomputer, the machine is optimized for advanced research into quantum chromodynamics, or QCD, the model of matter based on the "strong force" that binds quarks and gluons in the particles that make up the center of every atom in the universe.

Among other projects, the computer's speed will allow scientists to predict and analyze the behavior of subatomic particles and phenomena that will be produced at BNL's newest "atom smasher," the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), now under construction.

RHIC aims to create the quark-gluon plasma, a form of matter not seen since just after the Big Bang. During that fleeting instant, quarks and gluons are thought to have existed independently of their usual bonds, before protons and neutrons "condensed" out of the super-hot plasma.

"This is what Brookhaven Lab is all about," said BNL Director John Marburger. "We have a strong collaboration, including a major regional university and an international partner, working on one of the most difficult and basic problems at the frontier of science, and at the same time we are strengthening Long Island's economy through direct investment." Over $1,000,000 in components for the supercomputer were purchased from Long Island firms.

The machine is a finalist for the Gordon Bell prize for price-performance at the upcoming SC98 High Performance Networking and Computing conference in November.

"All of us at the RIKEN-BNL Research Center are eager to put this supercomputer to the test in our attempts to solve some of the most pressing questions of modern physics," said the center's director, Nobel Prize winner T.D. Lee.

A Unique Machine for Physics

The supercomputer stands almost nine feet high and is mounted in six large racks that are water-cooled to keep the machine from overheating.

There are a total of 12,288 nodes, or processors, in the computer, providing the calculational power needed to handle the demands of tracking the movement of millions of virtual subatomic particles.

A specially designed custom computer chip called a node gate array, or NGA, handles communications between the nodes and is at the heart of the supercomputer's design. Each NGA is paired with a Texas Instruments 50-megahertz processor and two megabytes of DRAM to form a single processing unit or "node" of the machine. Each node is constructed on a small printed circuit board called a "daughterboard." Sixty-four nodes are combined and attached to a larger structure called a "motherboard." There are 192 motherboards in all.

"Essentially, this computer turns space and time into a four-dimensional lattice, which can be thought of as a three-dimensional grid at any moment of time," said Robert Mawhinney, one of the Columbia physicists who led the design team for the RIKEN-BNL machine and its 0.4-teraflop sister machine at Columbia's physics department. "The computer can be used for many grid-oriented problems and in our problem, the grid gives reference points for calculating where particles are at any given moment."

"The smaller the boxes in the grid or the lattice," Mawhinney continued, "the more precise we can be in our calculations. Of course, the smaller and more numerous the boxes, the more computing power is required. But with this machine, the calculations will be more precise than ever before."

Shopping Locally

The supercomputer may be of world-class stature, but it has local roots. Nearly one-third of the components used to build the machine were purchased from Long Island firms in a competitive bidding process.

The two largest contracts were awarded to electronic components distributors Marshall Industries of Hauppauge, for $540,000, and Nu Horizons Electronics Corp. of Melville, for $236,000. In a critical step, the assembly of all the daughterboards and motherboards was performed by AJC Electronics of Syosset under an $89,000 contract. The final process of installing and debugging the complete system was handled largely by BNL's Computing & Communications staff.

Other Long Island companies that supplied components include: Hadco Corp. of Uniondale, for more than $115,000 in printed circuit boards; Bell Microproducts of Smithtown, $7,800; Anthem Electronics of Commack, $6,000; and Dove Electronics of East Setauket, $500.

"We were glad that much of what we needed was available through local suppliers," said Lee. "To build such a large computer from scratch is a massive task, but the job was made easier by the excellent service we received from these companies."

The RIKEN laboratory, whose name is short for "Rikagaku Kenkyusho," meaning Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, is supported by the Japanese Science and Technology Agency. It is located near Tokyo.

Brookhaven National Laboratory carries out basic and applied research in the physical, biomedical and environmental sciences and in selected energy technologies. Brookhaven is operated by Brookhaven Science Associates, a nonprofit research management organization, under contract with the U.S. Department of Energy.

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Among those unveiling the computer were: (left front) T.D. Lee, head of the RIKEN BNL Research Center; (next to Lee) Shun-Ichi Kobayashi, head of the Japanese RIKEN laboratory; (kneeling, front) Nicholas Samios, deputy director of the RIKEN BNL Research Center; (holding motherboard) co-designer Robert Mawhinney, Columbia and RIKEN BNL; (to Mawhinney's right) Ed McFadden, head of the BNL team that built the supercomputer; (to Mawhinney's left) John Marburger, BNL Director; (to Marburger's left) Satoshi Ozaki, RHIC Project Head; and (to Ozaki's left) co-designer Norman Christ, Columbia University.