Henry Neeman's baby is only 1 year old, but it's aging fast. In a couple of years, it'll be ready for retirement. For now, it's the center of attention — the biggest and fastest in these parts. The top dog. "This is Topdawg," Neeman says, introducing the dark, noisy creature that takes up 500 square feet of floor space and much of Neeman's life. Topdawg, named for a floppy eared former University of Oklahoma basketball mascot, is a computer. A supercomputer, to be accurate. That distinction, which has to do with relative size and speed, is clear only to those who know the difference — people such as Neeman, director of the OU Supercomputing Center for Education and Research. "I'm much more of a dork in person," Neeman says on his personal Web site. Actually, Neeman, a Buffalo, N.Y., native who launched OU's supercomputing program five years ago, seems more of a geek — a gregarious guy whose mind always seems a few lines of code ahead of the rest of us. An enthusiastic spokesman for Topdawg and everything computer, Neeman is the type who smiles when he's at work, which is most of the time. "I couldn't have imagined before taking this job how much I would enjoy this job," he said. "It's just the perfect job for me." The focus of his attention — except when he's ballroom dancing, his hobby — is stacked in banks of airy cabinets topped with air-conditioning units that help the composite brain keep its cool. Topdawg is essentially 512 hopped-up Dell personal computers hitched together with a "very, very fast network." Each has a Pentium 4 processor, 4 gigabytes of RAM and a 73-gigabyte hard drive. "Everything is pretty much the same as your desktop PC," Neeman said. If everything in Topdawg worked at peak efficiency — and in the real world, computers almost never do — this beast could perform 6.5 trillion calculations every second. Far as anyone knows, the thing hasn't achieved sentience, although all the human-like terms used to describe it make you wonder. For sure, Topdawg's whole is greater than the sum of its PCs. "What makes this a supercomputer is there's so many of them that believe so hard they're one big computer that it actually comes true," Neeman said. The trick is getting them all to act in unison and as quickly as possible. Software is the key. "It turns out that writing software to do that is very, very hard," Neeman said. That task is what much of the effort at the supercomputing center is aimed at. One thing about being a supercomputer is, as far as ranking is concerned, from the moment you begin, it's all downhill. When Topdawg "debuted," as they put it, in June 2005, it was the 54th fastest computer in the world, according to an organization that keeps track. Already, Topdawg has slipped to 88th. "Relative to the fastest computer in the world, it gets worse and worse because the fastest supercomputer gets better and better," Neeman said. That's why Neeman qualifies all talk of rankings with the phrase "at this minute." Blame it on Moore's Law. That's the nerdly rule of thumb that says, because of technological advances, about every 18 months the number of circuits you can cram onto a computer chip doubles. So, the number of calculations, the speed, of computers of a given size doubles with it. "Your half-life of being on the high end is on the order of two or three years," said Stephen Wheat, senior director for high-performance computing for Intel and a graduate of Tulsa's Booker T. Washington High School. "Within five years, it's easily well surpassed by much less expensive and smaller systems." That's why Topdawg is six times as fast as Boomer, the former big dog on this block. Boomer began at 196th-fastest in November 2002, but fell off the Top 500 list by June 2004. It was turned over to the physics department. Another of Topdawg's predecessors is up for sale. The march of progress creates obsolescence, but, Wheat said, because things get cheaper, it also brings opportunity. "The realm or reach of high-performance computing is stretching into spaces it hadn't been before." Like Neeman's pocket, for instance — that's where Neeman keeps his PDA (personal digital assistant). "This is more powerful than the most powerful supercomputer 20 years ago," he said, holding the tiny computer. For now, Topdawg, as far as Neeman knows, is the biggest computer in Oklahoma and the fastest in the Big 12 Conference, except for (Sooner fans, avert your eyes) the University of Texas, which has a monster eight times its size. In the super-geek world, size matters. For years, there's been a running "computer arms race" among the United States, Europe and Japan for the biggest and fastest, Neeman said. In supercomputing, we've come a long way, baby. But we've got a long way to go. In a decade, for instance, Neeman figures computers will have transistors the size of a molecule. That will be roughly 100 times more circuitry available and 100 times the speed. In his lifetime, Neeman said, we might see circuits made of DNA and enzymes. Beyond that, maybe quantum computers using some of the smallest known particles in the universe. What that will mean for computing abilities is hard to know. For now, all that is certain is that more capacity is better. And in a couple of years, Topdawg won't be a top dog.
Super or not?To be a supercomputer, Henry Neeman said, a machine must be: • One of the biggest, fastest computers in the world "right this minute." • At least 100 times as big and fast as a typical desktop PC "right this minute." To be on the Top 500 list of supercomputers, he said, a computer must be at least 500 times as big and fast as a typical PC "right this minute." To check the Top 500, go online to www.top500.org/list/2006/06/100.
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