Saudi university builds top-notch supercomputer

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST, is building what it says will be the highest-performance computing system in the Middle East. Named Shaheen, the machine will be used by the universityâ''s faculty and its international cadre of sponsored researchers. Very well and good. Except that the university doesnâ''t really exist yet.

Next September, the graduate-level school will open its doors â'' by which time it presumably will have doors â'' to faculty and students. Backed by Saudi Aramco, the school's aim is to improve the quality of the country's scientific and technological expertise. To that end, Shaheen will be Saudi Arabiaâ''s first supercomputer dedicated to academic research, though the need to model oil and gas reserves has pulled in high-performance computing experts for years. â''In Saudi, typically someone brings in a machine and the application is always relevant to oil and gas,â'' says Majid Al-Ghaslan, KAUSTâ''s interim chief information officer, who led the hunt for the supercomputer.

For now, though, KAUST isnâ''t much more than a construction site on the Red Sea, so the machine will initially reside at IBMâ''s Watson Research Center, in Yorktown, New York.

Shaheen, which is the Arabic word for peregrine falcon, will be a 16-rack Blue Gene/P system made up of 65,536 independent processing cores. It will be capable of 222 teraflop/s, or 222 trillion floating operations per second. â''No oneâ''s ever tried to bring up this much capacity while building the facility at the same time,â'' Al-Ghaslan says. The university says its performance will fall in the top 10 of supercomputers in the world. Within two years, KAUST expects to scale the machine up to a petaflop of computing capability.

This past June, the latest Top500 supercomputer rankings registered a new record with Los Alamos National Laboratoryâ''s RoadRunner, the first general-purpose supercomputer known to have a peak performance of more than one petaflop/s, or one quadrillion floating-point operations per second.

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