Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Building Supercomputers in Australia

Went along to part of the Australian Undergraduate Students' Computing Conference this week. That may sound deadly dull, academic and far removed from the real world, but it wasn't. One presentation was from a company which builds supercomputers in Canberra and another on how to secure e-commerce transactions.

Richard Alexander is an entertaining speaker. He is the CEO & Founder of Alexander Technology, a Canberra startup selling supercomputers. Richard got into this business by selling the ANU computer science department the components for their award winning "Bunyip" super computer.

Their strategy is initially to sell to researchers. Buying a supercomputer costing millions of dollars is a big decision for a researcher, but instead they can buy one from Alexander for a few hundred thousand. The business case is that such a computer can make a ten fold increase in research productivity, as measured by the number of research papers produced. More computer power means more numbers crunched and more results which can be written up.

Richard estimates the market for such computers in Australia as only being a few hundred. But the same computer architecture can be used for commercial applications requiring lots of processing, opening up a larger business and government market. Richard sees the hardware becoming a commodity and the money to be made from software and services.

I first heard of the Bunyip when sitting in the common room at ANU and overhearing two colleagues going through the specifications for building the system. When I heard they were building their own supercomputer I thought they were crazy. When I saw the completed unit, I still thought they were crazy. It looks like a whole lot of cheap PC boxes stacked on old library shelves. This is because it is a whole lot of cheap PC boxes stacked on old library shelves. But the clever part is in the way they are networked and programmed.

Alexander Technology are past the PC box stage and are now using rack mounted PC cards in more elegant looking cases. But the principle of using lots of low cost processors connected with the fastest affordable network remains.

I have suggested to the Chinese Government that they could fill warehouses with such supercomputers to run their country, the US government they could load them on a high speed ship for military operations. The Australian military could load one into their new Wedgetail mini-Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft to turn it into a airborne command post for relief operations.

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