Cray's Feet Of Clay

CRAY RESEARCH INC. HAS always reigned as the champion of supercomputers. But momentous changes are sweeping the supercomputing community, according to surveys by Jack J. Dongarra, a senior scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Silicon Graphics Inc., a no-show among the world's top 500 supercomputing sites in early 1994, now has more high-performance installations than Cray--128 to 125. Cray Research is still far ahead in total installed computing power. But Larry L. Smarr, head of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, predicts that even the knottiest problems will soon be tackled with linked clusters of computers built with the same "brain" chips used in desktops. Even Cray has unveiled such a machine.

Moreover, by late next year, the fastest traditional super will be choking on the dust of the first "teraflops" computer. That's computerese for crunching an incredible 1 trillion calculations every second. Computer makers have been racing for a decade to break the teraflops barrier.

And the winner? Intel Corp. The chipmaker has just been tapped by the Energy Dept. to construct a $46 million, 1.8 teraflops machine for Sandia National Laboratories. No surprise, really. The current speed record--281 gigaflops--was set last December at Sandia by a linked pair of Intel supercomputers that share 6,768 microprocessors. To reach teraflops speeds, the new supercomputer will have 9,000 of Intel's next-generation P6 chips, scheduled to leapfrog the Pentium later this year.