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PC World

A $1000 supercomputer?

June 15, 1999
Web posted at: 8:46 a.m. EDT (1246 GMT)

by Mark Brownstein gen computing graphic

(IDG) -- Within 18 months, you may be able to put the equivalent of today's supercomputer on your desktop--for about $1000. The CPU, long the heart of all PCs, may be an unnecessary component in tomorrow's high-performance computers.

The new computer will be able to process 100 billion instructions per second, according to Kent Gilson, chief technical officer of Star Bridge Systems. Company representatives discussed their plans for a high-end PC this week while announcing HAL-300GrW1, a "hypercomputer" that is said to be 60,000 times as fast as a 350-MHz Pentium, and many times as fast as IBM's supercomputer Pacific Blue. (The test used to measure the HAL's performance was different from the measure used for Pacific Blue, so exact comparisons are difficult.)

The new $1000 computer will be "three orders of magnitude different in price-performance [ratio]" from today's PCs, Gilson claims. It will fill many of the roles of a supercomputer, such as voice recognition, natural language processing, and holographic displays, he says. What's more, Gilson says, this super-PC will "run PC applications in emulation mode, in a manner similar to how the DEC Alpha runs NT, but it will run it a lot faster."

HAL comes first

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Although Gilson claims the hardware for such a PC is ready now, and that Star Bridge Systems has completed the programming language, called Viva, the company's initial focus is on its high-end hypercomputer line, HAL. The HAL-300GrW1 has a price tag of about $26 million, so it doesn't take a hypercomputer to understand why Star Bridge Systems has chosen to direct its attention to the HAL line first.

"We're a small company. If we came out with a PC, we wouldn't be able to sell enough [to fund the company], but we can sell hundreds a year of the high-end ones, so it just makes sense," Gilson says.

In today's computing terms, the architecture Star Bridge Systems has developed is a "massively parallel, ultratightly coupled, asymmetrical multiprocessor." It is based on a processor called a field programmable gate array, Gilson says. FPGAs can be programmed on the fly, so their configuration can be changed to perform the particular task at hand most efficiently.

FPGAs can be changed thousands of times per second. So in essence, an FPGA can become a specially designed CPU tailored to perform a required task right when you need the new processing architecture.

The traditional CPU, by contrast, has a fixed instruction set that is burnt into silicon. Programming instructions are written to work with the instruction set, and are limited by the capabilities built into it.

Suitcase supercomputer

Star Bridge Systems had sold one HAL computer upon the line's announcement. For one sales pitch, Gilson showed off what he calls a "HAL Junior"--a model that fits into a suitcase but delivers 640 billion instructions per second.

The company has mapped out a series of hypercomputer systems, ranging in performance from the HAL-10GrW1, capable of conducting 10 billion floating-point operations per second, to a HAL-100TrW1, which conducts 100 trillion floating point operations per second. The company is also selling signal-processing products (switches and routers) based on its HAL technology. These network products are designed for scientific supercomputing and extremely high-demand telecommunications.

Meanwhile, Star Bridge Systems representatives are speaking with major companies that have expressed interest in HAL, and that undoubtedly wonder whether the system can deliver the performance promised. Initial targets are those currently using supercomputers, and those who might see this as a higher-performance, lower-cost supercomputer.

"Eventually, reconfigurable computing [a term coined by Gilson, referring to the underlying technology behind the hypercomputer] will permeate all information systems, just because it's faster, cheaper, and better," Gilson predicts.

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