How do you build a a reconfigurable "hypercomputer" that performs like a supercomputer and costs as little as $175,000? Forbes.com has the answer.
The secret is in the chips. Instead of yoking together hundreds or even thousands of microprocessors -- as traditional supercomputers do -- Star Bridge uses a dozen or so relatively inexpensive field-programmable gate array (FPGA) chips. Each FPGA can handle thousands of tasks at the same time, in parallel. A microprocessor can only do one thing at a time. So even though a traditional supercomputer might have hundreds of microprocessors, a machine with only a handful of FPGAs can outperform it.
Also, FPGAs can be reconfigured using memory cells connected to the transistors on the chip. So unlike most chips, which can't be changed once they're made, an FPGA's circuitry can be redrawn over and over again. Engineers use FPGAs in satellites because this lets them upgrade computers without replacing chips; they just beam up new software and redraw the circuits.
Of course, many people doubted that it was possible to create such a system. Some even suspected it was a hoax. But Kent Gilson, Star Bridge Systems's founder and chief technologist, claims he has solved the problem.
He says that after five years of work he has created a programming language called Viva that lets developers easily write applications for an FPGA-based machine and an operating system that can run those applications.
Even traditional supercomputer vendors are interested. Take Silicon Graphics (SGI) for example.
SGI asked Star Bridge to send along a copy of its hardware and software. The supercomputer maker wants to explore ways to make a Star Bridge system work with a Silicon Graphics machine. "For our customers that have specialized applications needs there is a place for reconfigurable computing, and we're interested in how Star Bridge software might play into that for us," says David Parry, Silicon Graphics' senior vice president and general manager for servers and platforms.
And what about a user's experience?
Allan Snavely, a computer scientist at the University of California at San Diego Supercomputer Center, has been using a Star Bridge machine for about a year.
Snavely says it is not easy to write programs with Viva. "It's still a significant effort to describe a programming problem on their system," he says. Yet he believes the Star Bridge machine is ready to do some limited production work. And he believes FPGA computing is the way of the future.
Now, are you ready for the price?
Star Bridge sells four FPGA-based "hypercomputer" models with prices ranging from $175,000 to $700,000. The "sweet spot" machine, called the HC-62, sells for $350,000 and contains 11 Xilinx FPGA chips, which cost about $3,000 each. That model will perform 200 billion floating point operations a second. In addition, customers must license Viva, paying $45,000 per year for a one-person license
Will Star Bridge Systems be successful? Maybe in some niche markets, like defense and government agencies.
Source: Daniel Lyons, Forbes.com, March 25, 2003
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