IBM

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has widened its lead in computing firepower over

Hewlett-Packard

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, according to the latest ranking of the top 500 most powerful computers.

The elevation in status gives IBM claim to bragging rights in a rarefied strata of the computing universe. According to the ranking, issued twice a year by a group of academics, IBM claims 50% of total computing performance out of the lineup with 407 teraflops, besting H-P, with 19% of performance. (A teraflop is equal to one trillion calculations per second.)

In the preceding ranking issued in November 2003, IBM had 35% of total performance and H-P, 23%.

The list of top 500 supercomputers is compiled by computer experts at the University of Mannheim in Germany, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee.

The market for high-ticket computers, which retail for hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, may sound arcane, but in fact offers juicier growth prospects than work-a-day server boxes.

IIDC predicts sales of high-performance computers will grow 6.5% a year through 2008 to reach $7.6 billion in sales, besting expected server growth in the same period of 3.8%, to $61 billion.

Of course, just because a computer vendor moves up the academic rankings doesn't mean it will sell more big boxes.

The average information technology manager, who's more attuned to bang-per-buck, isn't likely to pay much attention to shifts in performance rankings within the top 500 list, although computer vendors may try to exploit a solid ranking to tout their lineups.

"It's like Ford and GM sponsoring high-performance Formula 1 cars. It's not the same team that actually builds their Mustangs and Chevys," noted Meta Group senior vice president Nick Gall. "It's the same thing with supercomputing."

Supercomputer performance rankings "hardly ever" make customers buy a particular brand, acknowledged Dave Turek, vice president of deep computing for IBM. But the list can certainly generate interest among potential customers in the elite academic and research world.

At the time of the last supercomputer rankings release in November 2003, Virginia Tech won plaudits for building the third-most powerful computer in the world using a cluster of

Apple

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computers based on IBM's PowerPC G5 64-bit chip architecture. "Apple made a splash at Virginia Tech, and I can't begin to tell you how many calls I got on that," said Turek.

The latest rankings reveal IBM also built the most systems in the top 500 lineup, with 224, or 45% of the total, to H-P's 140, or 28%. The two companies had been neck-and-neck for the past few rankings.

H-P argues that the rankings aren't all that relevant to its business, since it's focused on trying to sell boxes to a broader swathe of IT customers. "H-P is focusing less on computer power and more on the systems that have the most traction from an enterprise perspective," said H-P spokesperson Danny Miller. "It's the low-end systems

of the high-end market that have the most potential for growth and revenue."

Indeed, an IDC report found that H-P had the biggest share of the broader high-performance computing market in the first quarter, with one third of the industry's $1.6 billion in revenues, edging past IBM's 30% share.

Not Your Father's Supercomputer

The very definition of supercomputing has changed dramatically since the top 500 list debuted in 1993. "The standard laptop today is more powerful than the number 500 entry on the top 500 list then," pointed out Horst Simon, who helped compile the list at his post as director of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center in Berkeley. "That's a simple fact and a reflection of Moore's law," which is the theory that the number of transistors on a piece of silicon doubles every couple of years.

In the meantime IBM, H-P and even

Dell

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have been making inroads into the market by offering high-powered clustered computers, forcing down prices and thereby widening the pool of customers. No longer the province of academic or defense research, supercomputers today are being used by big companies to aid in designing cars or planes, or to help manage investment portfolios by minimizing risk. In fact, just under half of the ultra-high end boxes were sold to industrial customers in the latest ranking.

As supercomputing customers have changed, the lead vendors have also seen a reshuffling, with one-time big shots like

Sun Microsystems

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,

Silicon Graphics

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and

Cray

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having rapidly lost share over the past few years. The latest rankings reveal that erstwhile big-shot Cray, which led the market in the early 1990s, now claims a share exactly equal to that of more plebeian Dell, at 2.6%.

"It's pretty amazing that a supposedly commodity, low-end provider like Dell can have such a footprint in esoteric, academic, high-end supercomputing," said Gall of Meta Group, suggesting that could mark a tipping point in supercomputers.

In a related development that underscores how the shift to industry standards has reached even to the highest echelon of computing, 287 of the supercomputers on the list are powered by Intel processors, up from only 119 systems a year ago.

Advanced Micro Devices

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even broke into the elite top 10 most powerful supercomputers, with its Opteron processor fueling a system by Chinese integrator Dawning.

Berkeley's Simon said he expects to see more clusters based on industry standard chips pop up in future supercomputer rankings. But at the same time, he expects a resurgence in research and development of specialized processors for the tip of the pyramid in supercomputing, since processors built for commercial applications like database and transaction processing lack the features required for very specialized scientific or national security work. A recent government report reached a similar conclusion, he said.

In that vein, homegrown chip architecture will fuel IBM's forthcoming Blue Gene system, which aims to become the most powerful supercomputer in the world. The ultra-charged computer will have over 300 teraflops of computing power, or nearly 10 times that of NEC's Earth Simulator in Japan, which currently occupies the top spot among supercomputers.

After a decade's worth of investments in supercomputing, IBM now enjoys a dominance unrivaled since Cray last held sway over the market in the early 1990s, Simon said. He predicts IBM's dominance is "good for at least another half a decade."