Tech Talk iconTech Talk

Dawn of the Desktop Supercomputers

No matter how new your office computer might be, sooner or later you begin to notice that the thing just isn't running fast enough to satisfy your desire to get your work done ASAP, especially on a Friday afternoon. Of course, it couldn't be your own fault that the calculations you need to put that last crucial piece of data into the important report due on Monday are taking so long to compile. So it has to be the fault of your desktop unit, ancient relic that it is (installed in the bygone era of last month's companywide IT upgrade cycle).

That sense of rising expectations among personal computer users has caused the world's hardware vendors to pull out all the practical stops to address the need for speed with ever more exotic architectures and processors, within the financial constraints of economies of scale. Dual-core processors are now the rage, with quad-core devices hot on their heels. And pity the poor fool who has not been updated from a 32-bit architecture to a 64-bit one.

Need even more power dedicated to your own personal use whenever you want it, like right now? You could try hogging the server farm when your chips are down (pun intended), but that unsympathetic clod who calls himself a systems administrator keeps blocking your access requests with sarcastic usage request replies. Where's Moore's Law when you need it, for heaven's sake (it's nearly 5 o'clock)?

Well, hope may be on the horizon. It won't come soon enough to get you out of today's predicament, but it could give you something to dream about over the weekend.

From this week's Supercomputing 07 Conference in Reno, Nev., comes a report from The Economist, "More's Law", that says the march of the supercomputers from the chilly vaults of the computer science lab to a desktop near you is on in earnest.

The reporter for The Economist points to two small U.S. firms, SiCortex and Scalable Servers Corp., that have plans in the works to make sure you have the fastest personal computing machines on the planet available at your every whim whenever you want.

The motto of SiCortex is "Teraflops from Milliwatts." It's company website declares: 'By worrying every milliwatt, and thereby getting the heat out, SiCortex has collapsed a roomful of 64-bit computing power down onto a single backplane in a single compact cabinet...'

To this end, the Maynard, Mass., firm has just debuted its SC072 Catapult, a 72-processor, Linux-based screamer that might be able to fit into your cubicle for the mere pittance of US $15 000.

Over at Scalable Servers, in Fremont, Calif., the company boasts it 'provides modular and scalable technical computing server solutions to technical professionals who run parallel-cluster computing application or non-parallel computing tasks.'

It has also rolled out a desktop monster this month, the SSC flexBLADE, a 1500-watt modular x86 blade cluster (price not announced) that fits in a box so small you could park it next to your file cabinet.

So get those calculations completed between now and Monday, and if you have any free time left over, just think, someday soon one of these sweet rides could be yours, all yours. And you'll never have to work late again. Until the next preposterously enormous challenge is thrown your way in the unrelenting future.

Have a nice weekend.

Financial firm launches trading software contest with $400,000 in prizes

Interactive Brokers recently launched the third edition of its College Trading Olympiad. In the contest, open to undergraduate and graduate students from any country, participants have to elaborate a trading strategy and then write automated trading software to carry out that plan.

The student whose software generates the biggest profit takes the top prize: US $100,000 in cash. The 2nd and 3rd places receive $50,000 each, and there are still several $10,000 and $1,000 prizes for the remaining participants.

Interactive organized the Olympiad to findâ''and hireâ''talented engineers and scientists willing to work in the financial industry. Thanks to the competition the firm has recruited summer interns and at least two full-time employees.

We wrote about the Olympiad earlier this year in the article â''The Trading Test.â''

steven_sanders_interactive_brokers_trading_olympiad.jpg

Steven J. Sanders of Interactive Brokers at the company's technical operations center in Greenwich, Conn.

â''The old trading world required big, aggressive, street-smart folksâ''now it's technology skills that count,â'' Steven J. Sanders, a senior vice president with Interactive, told me when I met him early this year at the companyâ''s headquarters in Greenwich, Conn. â''We just don't ever get enough good technologists.â''

Interactive Brokers is the brokerage arm of Interactive Brokers Group, a $3 billion securities firm that uses advanced trading systems to offer electronic brokerage services to institutions and individuals, as well as to trade for itself through Timber Hill, its market-making subsidiary.

To participate in the Olympiad, students can write their trading software in C, C++, Java, Visual Basic, and even Excel scripts. The program has to use an API (application program interface) to connect to Interactiveâ''s Trader Workstation program, which in turn connects to Interactiveâ''s online brokerage system.

The trading program has to gather financial data and analyze that data using technical or fundamental techniques to decide what trades to execute. Each contestant starts with $1 million in virtual money and can trade stocks, bonds, options, futures, commodities, and currencies. All trades are virtual, taking place on Interactiveâ''s simulation system, but the buying and selling prices are based on real market data.

The financial industry has long sought to hire math whizzes, physics PhDs, and other prodigy types to work as quantitative analysts, or â''quants.â'' Their job is to concoct pricing models, probe new ways to quantify risk, and mine mountains of data. Now, as automated trading systems take over ever more of the substantive work on Wall Street, many firms are seeking quants who not only know the math but the nuts and bolts of IT systems, too. (Our competitor Tech Review had a fascinating article on quants and the current subprime credit crisis.)

This â''revolution in financial innovation,â'' as Jim Finnegan, editor and publisher of Financial Engineering News, in Waltham, Mass., puts it, has led many universities with traditional finance and management programs to add more quantitative and computational finance to their curriculums. As a result, the number of financial engineering type of programs in the United States, Europe, and Asia went from 15 five years ago to about 40 today, Finnegan says.

For those interested in careers combining finance and technology, Interactiveâ''s trading contest is a rare opportunity to see how real-world applications workâ''and even win some cash to help pay for college. The competition, however, should get tougher. The contest, which was previously open only to students from the United States, Canada, and Mexico, now welcomes participants from anywhere in the world.

â''Weâ''ve noticed with interest that many applicants via the American colleges each year are peppered with high caliber international candidates,â'' says Andrew Wilkinson, an Interactive spokesman. â''So this year, we opened up the contest to the world!â''

In the last edition of the Olympiad, Brian Eckerly, an electrical engineering student at Ohio State University, in Columbus, took the top spot. Eckerly coded the initial version of his program in just two nights and left it running at his off-campus apartment. In seven weeks, the program made a 300-percent profit.

Some traders, however, are suspicious of Interactiveâ''s goals with the Olympiad. In one forum on Elite Traderâ''s website, a user wrote: â''It almost looks like [Interactive Brokers] is looking for trading ideas for their own trading. Anyone with any kind of worthwhile plan will not enter this contest and reveal the strategy.â'' Another added: â''Talk about rip-off!â''

Interactive says itâ''s not after the studentsâ'' plans. Most participants rely on trading techniques that are widely known in the industry, and Interactive has enough money-making strategies of its own, Sanders told me. What Interactive is looking for, he insists, are tech-savvy professionals that can help improve the firmâ''s trading algorithms and systems.

The Olympiadâ''s last edition had more than 200 contestants, and Interactive expects many more for the third edition. The deadline to submit applications is 31 December 2007 11:59 p.m. Eastern time. There is no cost to enter. The competition will last eight weeks from 7 January to 29 February 2008.

Death, Taxes, and Fingerprint Sensors

Today AuthenTec reported the shipment of its 25 millionth fingerprint sensor.

The company is celebrating the milestone by sponsoring an international contest for "the 25 best application ideas that take advantage of AuthenTecâ''s award-winning fingerprint sensors." If you win, you get a fingerprint-protected laptop. Second place through 25th gets a $25.00 gift card.

Someone's already thought of fingerprint-authenticated cell phones, PDAs, PCs, laptops, door locks, ATM machines, and national ID cards. Now itâ''s your turn.

Before you begin, let me remind everyone that a chopped-off finger won't fool the sensors.

Contest rules and so on:

Millions of people each day draw upon the Power of Touch to eliminate passwords, protect their phones and laptops from theft, shop online, or open their front door. The uses and applications in which fingerprint sensors can make life better are almost endless. The 25 winning ideas will be selected by a panel of technology enthusiasts, and winners will be awarded prizes which include the first place prize of an AuthenTec-enabled laptop PC and a $25 gift card for the 24 runners up. Big Ideas may be submitted until November 30, 2007 at the contest Web site, 25Mandcounting.com.

25 million is a lot of fingerprint sensors. If youâ''re wondering why you havenâ''t noticed this embarrassment of riches, you must not be living in Japan. Itâ''s no secret that Japan is usually the early adopter of new technologies, and this is no exception.

There, the market adoption has followed what the company refers to as a "hockey stick" growth curve. Over nine steady years the company sold 10 million sensors, and over the next 16 months, that number shot up to 25 million. AuthenTec sensors are now in about 17 million laptops and 7 million cell phones. Confirming the prediction made back in September, the company now says nearly one in five laptops shipped during 2007 will include a fingerprint sensor.

Getting Nanowires into Correct Position Could Lead to Industrial Scaling

There have been a number of methods developed for growing nanowires. The problem for electronics applications has been attaching nanowires to components and once attached getting them organized into a two-dimensional array.

A solution to the first problem has been to use nanowires both for the components and the interconnections.

But the second problem has been a little trickier--getting them in the right position. Fluid flow has been experimented with, where the nanowires fall into parallel orientations just like logs in a river.

Later, researchers exploited this phenomenon by employing the Langmuir-Blodgett

Technique. Basically, the nanowires were collected in large groups on the surface of water and then transferred to a substrate.

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology's (NIST) Surface and Interafce Research Group, led by Dr. Babak Nikoobakht, have taken a different approach. They have grown the nanowires directly onto the substrate, and done it so they are aligned horizontally to the substrate rather than perpendicularly.

A schematic of the photolithography process for scalable fabrication of nanowire devices can be seen below. (a) Gold pads and fiducial marks are deposited on the surface. (b) NWs are grown selectively from the two sides of the gold pads. (c) Metal electrodes and bonding pads are placed exactly on NWs by alignment of fiducial marks.

cm071798pf00001.jpg

By growing the nanowires directly on the substrate, multiple steps are eliminated that are needed in the other methods to get the nanowires in the correct orientation on the substrate.

As Nikoobakht relates in a recent interview , "Our method has a minimum number of steps. It combines a chemical growth method with well known optical lithography techniques. Nanowires are grown where they need to be."

The devices created in the lab can work as Field-Effect Transistors (FETs), but Nikoobakht concedes that it could take years to establish their performance and stability.

Sierra Club's Global Warming cartoon gets an Emmy

ATVcrop.gif

The Sierra Club, Project 3650.org, and Pecos Pictures just got an Emmy for Public Service for the animated short, "Big Fun with Global Warming." (No, you didn't miss the ceremony on TV, the Academy hands out public service awards at a nice lunch, not at a televised extravaganza.) This is only the second time the Emmy organization gave out an award in the category of National Public Service Announcement/Broadband, that is, the cartoon never played on traditional television, but found its viewers over the Internet, cell phone, or other portable devices.

The video features "Stinky," a "nasty little office man" who thinks global warming is "a bunch of hooey." Check it out here.

Cheap Laptops + Mobile Broadband = Huge Market, Says Microsoft

Microsoft and GSMA, the trade association of GSM mobile phone operators, are pushing PC manufacturers to roll out a new line of low-end notebooks that can connect to the internet through mobile phone networks. They just released the results of a joint survey that suggests a potential market for 70 million laptops, worth about $50 billion, targeted at mainstream users.

The two parties are basically arguing that PC designers and manufacturers need to rethink how they approach potential buyers of low-end laptops. To capture more first-time buyers, Microsoft and GSMA are championing the inclusion of hardware that enables notebooks to connect to the internet through mobile phone networksâ''a move that is thought to make the existing technology of data access through mobile broadband much simpler for mainstream computer users. â''We need to show the PC industry that they need to innovate and push hardware design, because the needs of those buyers is not the same as the typical road warrior,â'' says Ken Pawlak, Microsoftâ''s director of mobile operator PCs.

Instead, the surveyâ''consisting of some 12,000 in-person interviews conducted across 13 countries in Europe and Asiaâ''reveals that mainstream users want computers primarily for entertainment and easy internet access from more places than just the homeâ''indeed, wherever a cell phone signal is available.

With the exception of a few high-end notebooks with built-in mobile broadband capabilities, most users who now tap into their mobile networks for data do so through external cards that they plug in to their machines. The future manufacturers of these cheap consumer laptopsâ''and at least six PC makers have signed on to do soâ''will use basically the same chip sets that are currently in smart phones. The transition is merely expected to make the process of connecting to mobile broadband networks as easy as using wi-fi is now, with the added advantage of those phone networksâ'' broader reach. So as the software giant and the telecom trade association spread the word in the form of a design competition (winner gets a press release), expect to see a flurry of cheap, mobile-broadband-ready notebooksâ''in the US $500 to $1000 rangeâ''surfacing on the market midway through 2008.

Get a Laptop, Give One to a Poor Child

The campaign to give low-cost computers to the children of the developing world has come up with a novel way to kick-start the giving. And it coincides with the start of the traditional developed world's holiday season. The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative yesterday announced a program in which supporters can purchase one of their XO-1 laptops for a child of their own and fund the cost of giving one to an underprivileged child. The program runs from 12 November to 26 November in the United States and Canada.

On a special Web site devoted to the Give One Get One (G1G1) program (laptopgiving.org), the OLPC states:

This is the first time the revolutionary XO laptop has been made available to the general public. For a donation of $399, one XO laptop will be sent to empower a child in a developing nation and one will be sent to the child in your life in recognition of your contribution. $200 of your donation is tax-deductible (your $399 donation minus the fair market value of the XO laptop you will be receiving). For all U.S. donors who participate in the Give One Get One program, T-Mobile is offering one year of complimentary HotSpot access.

To get the giving going, the non-profit group, started by MIT's Nicholas Negroponte, has taken out a full-page ad in the current issue of The Economist. On it's own progress site, the group wrote: 'While we have no idea what the response will be, Hilary and the â''volunteer armyâ'' that includes Pentagram, Nurun, W2, Racepoint, Digital Influence Group, Eleven, Inc., and Len Fink did a fantastic job raising the public awareness of the campaign.'

This publication has written often on the merits of the OLPC movement. For a little background on the technology and people behind the children's laptop initiative, please see two recent articles from our pages: "The Laptop Crusade" by Senior Editor Tekla S. Perry and "Mary Lou Jepsen: Laptops for All" by Associate Editor Sandra Upson.

Negroponte yesterday told CNN International, "In the Give One Get One program, the likely recipient in the developed world is a child. For that child to be using the same laptop as a kid in Africa is especially meaningful."

We're not really supposed to endorse products at Spectrum; but I think if you read between the lines, you might come to the conclusion that this is one offer that could bend the rules a bit.

As Negroponte pointed out yesterday: "Don't buy it because it is an inexpensive laptop. Buy it to join a movement to change the world."

Looj, the gutter cleaning robot, and I

document_resize.jpegI fell in love over email, in love with Looj. IRobot, maker of Roomba and Scooba and other cute little household robots, sent me a press release announcing a gutter-cleaning robot, the Looj. I loved the name; it seemed so soft and friendly. I liked the price, $100 to $170, depending on accessories. I loved the concept, stick a cute little gizmo in the gutter and stand back and watch it blast through the mulch; here in Silicon Valley, in a two-story house with a steep roof, directly under 200 year old live oaks that drop nasty spiky leaves year round, clogged gutters are a nasty fact of life that Iâ''d love to have someone else (besides my husband perched precariously on an extension ladder) take care of. Someone, or something, I guess, like Looj.

So I thought Looj and I could have a serious, long-term relationship. Looj would be my first real robot friend, since Petster. (Admittedly cute, but did nothing useful.)

But though I lusted after Looj, Looj didnâ''t want me.

â''Looj is designed for standard K or J style gutters,â'' the folks at iRobot said.

Weâ''ve got K style gutters, brand new last October, so I figured I was good, this new, they had to be standard; the only choice I recall being offered was color.

I was wrong. My husband printed out the Looj template, climbed up on the roof, and tried to put it into the gutter. It didnâ''t fit. It was too wide.

â''We estimate that over 23 million homes can use Looj,â'' an iRobot spokesperson told me.

Guess Iâ''m just special.

But I figured if I couldnâ''t have Looj for my very own, maybe someone else at IEEE Spectrum could, and I could at least have a once-removed relationship with the critter. Spectrum business manager Robert Ross, with a colonial house in Southampton, N.Y., was game, and he printed out the template. Nope, Looj didnâ''t want him either; his 87-old copper gutters are decidedly non-standard.

Since it looks like Iâ''ll be Looj-less for some time (iRobot has no plans right now to make the device in any other form factors), my husband this weekend rigged together a gutter cleaner out of an electric leaf blower and lots of PVC pipe. Itâ''s big, and clunky, and loud---not nearly as lovable as little Looj. Sigh.

Intel 45-nanometer processors arrive

On 11 November Intel announced the release of 16 server and high-end PC processors based on the first fundamental redesign of the CMOS transistor in 40 years. The chips are built using a manufacturing process that can make structures as small as 45 nanometers. The transistors it makes arenâ''t just small; they include several materials not previously used. The gates are now made from metal instead of polycrystalline silicon, and the insulating layer between the gate and the transistor channel are made from a hafnium-based high-k dielectric material instead of silicon dioxide.

The materials switch eliminates a serious problem that has been plaguing transistors for the several generations. Transistors had shrunk to the point where quantum mechanical effects have been causing current to leak through the thin silicon dioxide insulation layer between the gate and the channel. Switching to a high-k dielectric stemmed the leak, but also necessitated a switch to a metal gate.

The leaders of the epic engineering effort that developed the new transistor and manufacturing process laid out all the details in the October issue of IEEE Spectrum.

The specific chips the company is launching are 15 server processors under the Xeon Hi-k brand (itâ''s codename during development was Penryn). In addition it is launching a desktop processor called Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650 quad core processor.

For Xeon performance specs go here.

For the press briefing and 45-nm backgrounders go here.

Jacksonville air traffic controllers are having a really bad day

monitorAlert.gif

This afternoon at the Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center, one of 22 such centers that oversee U.S. airspace, most of the radar system went down for nearly an hour, along with half of the radio frequencies on which controllers talk to pilots. Landline phone communications at the center, which controllers use to share information with controllers at other centers, failed also. It's not clear if controllers used cell phones to try to deal with the situation as they did when a similar incident happened in Memphis in September.) Officially, cell phones are not allowed in the work area of FAA centers.

The FAA ordered a ground stop on Jacksonville Center, that meant that aircraft around the country planning to cross Jacksonville's airspace had to sit on the tarmac. Jacksonville is the seventh busiest en route center in the United States, handling airspace bounded roughly by the Florida-Alabama border, Orlando, southern Georgia, and the North Carolina-South Carolina border.

No cause for the failures has been announced. This looks like just one more symptom of an air traffic control system that has fallen behind the technological curve and, perhaps, is reaching its breaking point.

Advertisement

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Advertisement
Load More