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System X supercomputer speeds up almost 20 percent

Virginia Tech's all-Mac System X supercomputer, installed at the university's Terascale Computing Facility, made headlines last year when it was determined to be the third-fastest supercomputer in the world. System X has been upgraded to Apple Computer Inc.'s Xserve G5 server and now runs even faster, with a sustained speed of 12.25 trillion operations per second -- 19 percent faster than before.

Apple debuted the Power Mac G5 in 2003, the first computer from Apple to feature a 64-bit PowerPC 970 chip manufactured by IBM, and a few customers who placed early orders for the high-end model in the summer of 2003 were stymied by what appeared to be production delays. It was only revealed later that Apple had siphoned off some of those systems to send to Virginia Tech for use in System X, which was assembled and bench-tested in time to qualify for last year's Top 500, a ranking of the world's fastest supercomputers presented by the Universities of Mannheim and Tennessee and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC).

At the time, Apple's Xserve system still used the older, slower G4 processor. Apple introduced the Xserve G5 at Macworld Conference & Expo in San Francisco, Calif. in January 2004. Later that month Virginia Tech indicated that it would upgrade, and Apple began shipping the Xserve G5 in quantity in March.

The Xserve G5 occupies a much lower profile in a rack-mount system than a Power Mac G5 does, but a factor Virginia Tech cited in its decision to upgrade is the Xserve G5's use of RAM that employs Error Correcting Code (ECC) protection -- a feature absent from the Power Mac.

One of System X's most remarkable features is its price. The system cost $5.2 million to deploy, a small fraction of what comparable supercomputing facilities have cost. Virginia Tech reports that $600,000 was spent converting System X to the Xserve G5.

System X won't retain its number three spot when this year's Top 500 list is published: Other more powerful systems have come online since 2003 that will supercede System X in raw computing power -- though few, if any, are likely to compare to System X when it comes to price-performance ratio. This year's Top 500 listing will be presented in November at the SC2004 conference in Pittsburgh, Penn.

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