1. Archive

Computer sets speed mark, company says

A Cambridge company said last week it has developed the world's speediest computer, a machine that could read a year's worth of newspapers in the blink of an eye. The CM-200, developed by Thinking Machines Corp., can whiz through more than 9-billion calculations a second and can be used by as many as 100 engineers and scientists at a time, company officials said.

"We're excited, not just because of the speed but because it's a real computer in production that people can use," said Sheryl Handler, the company's president.

Not that shoppers will be able to snap up the CM-200 at their local computer store. At about $10-million each, it will be used mostly by government and industry for applications ranging from global weather prediction to oil exploration and automotive design.

The CM-200 is nearly twice as fast as its predecessor and broke the supercomputer speed record set just last week by rival Intel Corp., doing 9.03-billion mathematical calculations a second, said Tim Browne, a Thinking Machines spokesman.

Intel's Touchstone Delta computer installed at the California Institute of Technology performed 8.6-billion calculations a second.

But Intel officials, not to be outdone, said they expect their computer to top 10-billion calculations soon.

"We've set a trap for them, and they fell into it," said Justin Rattner, director of technology for Intel. "The performance level we announced last week was an intermediate result. We'll overtake them next week."

Computer analysts said the competition is heating up between Thinking Machines and Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel, the leading suppliers of a new breed of machines known as massively parallel supercomputers.

These machines break up problems into thousands of tiny pieces and solve them simultaneously on hundreds or thousands of linked microprocessors.

Traditional supercomputers, like those developed by market leader Cray Research Inc., attack a problem one step at a time.

Massively parallel systems represent just a small portion of the supercomputer market. But Robert Trier, a Minneapolis-based computer consultant, said the development of the CM-200 indicates that parallel computing is the wave of the future.

Jet black and the size of a large-screen TV, the CM-200 looks like eight large cubes stuck together. Red light-emitting diodes on one side flash every time one of the computer's 4,000 chips perform a function.

Danny Hillis, chief scientist of Thinking Machines, said he hopes the CM-200 can be used for research such as the human genome project, an effort to decipher the code of all the genes in the body.