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World's Fastest Computer

WASHINGTON--Breaking the sound barrier may have been more sexy, but a computer designed by Intel Corp. has performed an equally awesome feat: It is the first to perform 1 trillion mathematical operations per second, known as a teraflops. The breakthrough was announced here yesterday by the Department of Energy (DOE), which will use the $55 million supercomputer for everything from simulating nuclear-weapons decay and explosions to predicting the weather.

"Just a few years ago, a teraflops was an intellectual barrier that nature dared us to cross," says Craig Barrett, Intel's executive vice president. The new machine is about 2.5 times faster than the previous record holder, a Hitachi machine that can perform 350 billion operations per second.

The muscles driving this speedster are 4536 pairs of Intel's next-generation PC microprocessor, called the P6 or the Pentium Pro. Each pair forms a node, or computational unit. One of the biggest challenges was designing a nerve center to flex these muscles efficiently. Intel designed special network interface chips to handle messages between each P6 pair, and new software to oversee this data deluge and run programs. Once these components were designed, "everything else came together really quick," says Alex Larzelere, DOE's director of strategic computing.

The supercomputer, comprised of 80 refrigerator-sized units, is still undergoing test runs at Intel headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. It's expected to be shipped next month to its permanent home, Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, and up and running in February.