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IBM to build ultrasupercomputer

An ultrasupercomputer _ 300 times faster than any existing machine _ will be built by IBM to give the government a way to simulate nuclear explosions without actually blowing up bombs.

Announcing the $94-million project Friday, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary called it a "dramatic leapfrog" over current technology.

The ultrasupercomputer is expected to be able to do 3-trillion operations per second and retain 2.5-trillion bytes of memory, making it by far the world's most powerful thinking machine. Current supercomputers have about 10-billion bytes. A byte is the smallest unit of computer memory.

Such speed and depth of memory will enable scientists to design mathematical models that test nuclear weapons without ever having to explode them, O'Leary said.

At a White House ceremony, President Clinton marveled over the computer's capacity. He said it could do in one second what it would take someone with a hand-held computer 30,000 years to achieve.

To further illustrate the power of the ultrasupercomputer _ to be known as DOE Option Blue _ Energy Department officials resorted to analogies from the Olympics, despite an embarrassing string of glitches with IBM systems in Atlanta.

The department's Gill Wiegand said that if the best jump of a world-record pole vaulter was equal to the power of the current supercomputer, then Option Blue will equal the mark of a vaulter able to leap over a 600-story building.

He said that if the speed of current home computers was analogous to the world record in the 100-meter dash (about nine seconds), then Option Blue would be able to run from New York to Philadelphia in the same period of time.

Mark F. Bregman of IBM said that his company already was planning to build the new generation of supercomputer, but that the Energy Department contract will accelerate that development by about 18 months.

The computer's main job will be to simulate the performance and deterioration of the nation's stockpile of nuclear weapons. This once required actual underground tests of the weapons. The United States is observing a moratorium on nuclear tests while working toward a global ban, so that future tests will have to be done with electronic modeling.

Only a massively powerful computer could take on such a simulation, said Bruce Tartar, head of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a DOE facility in California.

"This is absolutely essential for us to assess the safety and reliability of the nation's nuclear stockpile without testing," he said.

The new computer is the second machine in a program of simulated weapons testing. A smaller machine, called Option Red, was ordered last year from the Intel Corp. and will be installed in December at the Energy Department's Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico. Option Red will handle about 1.5-trillion operations per second.

The Option Blue computer will be installed by 1998 at the Livermore laboratory. It will be connected to other national labs, enabling scientists at those sites to use the machine.

The ultrasupercomputer also could be used to simulate other technical issues, including:

Measuring the effects of car crashes without actually crashing cars.

Designing airplanes and power plants.

Analyzing disease molecules and then designing drugs that combat the disease.

Modeling global weather and determining how human activities might be changing it.