Bob Nelson

For immediate release


(212) 854-6580

Nov. 23, 1998



Columbia's Physics Supercomputer

Answers Big Questions at Small Cost

QCDSP Computer Wins Industry Prize For Price and Performance


Scientists at Columbia University built a supercomputer to help them answer big questions about the beginning of the universe and the nature of matter. But they had to do it with a small budget, less than $4 million provided by the federal Departme nt of Energy and the Riken Brookhaven Research Center.

Now, their frugality has been recognized by the supercomputer industry, which awarded the team the 1998 Gordon Bell Prize for Price/Performance "in recognition of their superior effort in practical parallel-processing research."

The award was given to the Columbia team for QCDSP, a supercomputer that began operating last summer at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. The supercomputer, which can perform 600 billion adds or multiplies per second, is the latest in a series of relatively inexpensive parallel supercomputers now in use at universities around the world that have been built at Columbia. Run in tandem with a sister machine capable of 400 billion operations per second that began operating on the Colum bia campus in April, the supercomputer is capable of peak performance at trillion-calculation-per-second levels at less than a tenth the typical $50 million price tag for a commercial supercomputer with that speed. A billion floating-point operations, or adds and multiplies, per second is commonly called a gigaflop; a trillion such operations is a teraflop.

"We've shown that you can get a lot of computing bang for relatively few bucks, while optimizing the architecture for the problems that users will tackle,"said Robert Mawhinney, professor of physics at Columbia and a leader of the team that designe d and built the supercomputers at Columbia and Brookhaven.

The award, presented Nov. 12 at the SC98 High Performance Networking and Computing Conference in Orlando, Fla., is sponsored by the IEEE Computer Society and IEEE Computer magazine. It includes a $1500 prize from Gordon Bell, a former vice presiden t for research at Digital Equipment Corp. and one of the nation's most prominent researchers in high performance computing.

"We're immensely gratified by the award," said Norman Christ, chairman and professor of physics and another lead investigator in the project. "By building these computers ourselves, we're able to acquire world-class machines at a price within the l evel of funding available to U.S. science."

QCDSP's vast computing power is needed to simulate the interactions between quarks and gluons, the tiny constituents of neutrons and protons predicted by quantum chromodynamics (QCD) theory. Physicists believe that when normal matter is heated to t hree trillion degrees Fahrenheit, quarks and gluons - never before observed outside an atomic nucleus - boil free into an ultra-hot gas, called a quark-gluon plasma. The supercomputer will simulate this state, which scientists believe existed at the time of the Big Bang, perhaps 10 billion years ago, and hope to recreate at Brookhaven's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, a particle accelerator to be completed in 1999.

Such huge computing power can be obtained at low cost because of a series of design decisions made by the Columbia research group, which pioneered the construction of highly parallel supercomputers dedicated to QCD calculations in 1982. The Brookha ven supercomputer incorporates 12,288 individual processors that are linked together to undertake computations in parallel rather than sequentially. (The Columbia machine has 8,192 such processors.) Each node includes a communications controller, designed by Columbia physicists and built to their specifications, and a digital signal processor (DSP) manufactured by Texas Instruments, both mounted on a circuit board with 2 megabytes of memory. A combination of the physics topic and the type of proces sor used led to the supercomputer's name: QCDSP.