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U. makes top 500 computer list

One facet in the University of Utah's international reputation for computer science was reconfirmed Thursday with the latest ranking of the world's top 500 supercomputing sites.

Government agencies, research universities, defense contractors and large corporations make up the bulk of the list, with the U. weighing in at No. 353.The U. has been on and off the list the since it was first published in June 1993. Being mentioned helps the university's top researchers attract the best graduate students and research funds, said Julio Facelli, director of the U.'s Center for High-Performance Computing.

Supercomputer vendors like SGI (Silicon Graphics Inc.), IBM and Sun, all of which have their brand represented at the U., use the list as a marketing tool. They know supercomputing research sites have to replace or upgrade their machines every few years to remain competitive, Facelli said. "To be really honest with the students and provide them with the state-of-the-art education, we have to be in a three-year replacement."

If "replacement" sounds synonymous with "expensive," it is. Supercomputers are made up of a number of processors that cost at least $20,000 each, Facelli said. Supercomputers at the U. have 50 to 100 processors each, putting them in the $1 million to $2 million range; the new IBM ASCI Blue Pacific taking up residence at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories had a $93 million price tag.

The Web site for the Top 500 list, http://top500.org, shows the number of processors that entries on the list have and other benchmarking factors used to determine each machine's horsepower.

Published at the Supercomputer '99 conference in Mannheim, Germany, the compilation is a brag list, to be sure, except for the 44 locations identified only as "classified." Of those, 33 are U.S. government sites and 11 are foreign government sites, mostly in the United Kingdom and France.

"I took a glance through the list yesterday. Some of the really big machines are at the classified sites, so we only know of the existence of those machines," Facelli said.

SGI, based in Mountain View, Calif., dominates the list and is the primary computer vendor at 182 of the top 500 sites, followed by IBM with 118 and Sun with 95. William White, product manager for SGI's Cray T3E supercomputer, said the list benefits computer sellers, users "and says something about technology in general."

White said the list can easily be divided into two parts, with the most massive computers found among the top 50. "The increase in power is a factor of five from the bottom of the list to No. 50. From No. 50 to No. 1, there is a factor of 20. Once you get to No. 50, you start seeing the really big machines."