Small step for NASA, giant leap for Linux

Supercomputers: Bluffdale's Linux Networx's latest deals indicate a promising future
This is an archived article that was published on in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Linux Networx may be based in Bluffdale, but the supercomputer maker has its eyes on the stars.

Over the past month, the company has contracted with NASA and now ATK Launch Systems for customized editions of some of its most advanced creations. Terms, including expected installation dates and costs, were not disclosed. But the deals likely run into the millions of dollars.

More to the point, Linux Networx executives said, is how the deals expand their role in providing the data-processing volume and speed needed to send humanity into the cosmos.

CEO Robert Ewald boasted Monday that with ATK's order, Linux Networx's technology "will power mission-critical applications [with] state-of-the-art engineering, scientific and safety efforts for our nation's high-technology space vehicles."

ATK's system will consist of a cluster of 110 nodes running at 2.24 teraflops, or more than 2.2 trillion operations per second. The system will perform aerodynamic simulations and structural-integrity evaluations on launch systems and solid propulsion rockets.

NASA's system, a 128-node version announced May 1, will be at Goddard Space Flight Center. It will run at 3.3 teraflops and will be used to accelerate and expand data processing for applications tracking things such as weather changes and astrophysical phenomena.

Brent Farr, director of aerospace solutions, said Linux Networx has identified the space program and its supporting industries as the company's prime future market. Close behind are the oil, gas and alternative-energy industries.

"To remain competitive, these companies will have to find new ways to formulate and extrapolate ideas, and much faster," he said.

In the long run, Farr said, acquiring a supercomputing system to aid in aircraft design and then to test those designs in simulated environments will prove a bargain compared with the traditional creation of physical models and erection of wind tunnels.

Along with the demand for bigger, faster computers to aid designers and manufacturers of future air and space craft, the growing acceptance of Linux is helping the Utah company build on its already impressive reputation.

The freely distributed Linux operating system lends itself to quick improvement by its "open source" model, which relies on a global network of software developers who freely distribute and fine tune their Linux-related programming codes.

With corporate support in recent years from the No. 1 and No. 2 Linux distributors - RedHat and Novell, respectively - the operating system has matured into a serious contender to Microsoft Windows, Farr said.

Anne Vincenti, director of storage for Linux Networx, said the aerospace piece of the company's business - including defense, as well as space-exploration applications - is expected to continue to expand in coming years.

"Those markets are growing, and we see ourselves as growing along with them - perhaps even at a faster rate," she said, predicting speedier testing also could accelerate innovations in design.

Ramesh Krishnan, a senior staff engineer at ATK, said the demand for complicated, ever-more-exact virtual models and the need to solve increasingly complex physics problems require ever-smarter electronic brains. "We believe Linux Networx has the proven expertise in application tuning and system design we need to meet these sophisticated computational and visualization demands," he said.

Linux Networx has been developing and selling supercomputers for more than a decade. In all, nearly 500 clusters have been sold globally to clients such as Boeing, BMW, DaimlerChrysler, Shell Oil, Los Alamos National Laboratories, Sandia National Laboratories and the Department of Defense.

Who has the fastest computer?

That question is hotly contested, with champions replaced almost as quickly as they climb to the top. Supercomputer speeds are measured in TFLOPs, or teraflops - trillions of operations per second. The IBM Blue Gene/L may be the fastest currently. The Department of Energy's data-processor, which topped 280 TFLOPs using 131,072 processors last October, is thought to have the potential of 360 TFLOPs.

-- Top 500 Supercomputer

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