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A New Breed of Computers : Mini-Supers at Cutting Edge of Technology

April 27, 1986|DONNA K. H. WALTERS | Times Staff Writer

The computer industry thrives on the knowledge that the more some people get, the more they want.

Computer makers have been delivering more with astounding regularity, producing ever-smaller computers that hold more information and work faster for less money.

From arcane government laboratories and university research centers, computers moved into businesses, elementary school rooms and even into middle-class homes. They run factories and control skyscrapers' energy systems, turn out payroll checks, turn on dishwashers and even help build other computers.

From the seemingly insatiable quest for computing power, a new generation of computers was spawned--magnificently powerful supercomputers that can cost as much as $17 million and do millions of tasks per second.

Still, some people aren't satisfied. They want to predict this afternoon's weather, find oil faster, design safer cars and planes, learn why stars die and solve the mathematical riddles of an atom's nucleus.

"The present computing power is woefully inadequate," said Kenneth Wilson, a computer scientist who directs the Center for Theory and Simulation in Science and Engineering, Cornell University's supercomputing center.

Wilson said that "to even get started" on problems involving the smallest particles of the universe, he would need a computer that does 40 billion operations per second.

Stretching the performance level to even a fraction of that speed and making the technology commercially affordable is the heady challenge facing makers of tomorrow's computers.

Few can command the massive resources needed to make even one of the giant supercomputers and challenge the dominant company in that market, Cray Research.

Instead, they're making smaller machines, called mini-supercomputers (or sometimes "Crayettes") that fill the power gap between the 150 or so supercomputers in use today and the thousands of large mainframes at work in businesses throughout the world.

They are finding willing buyers among science and engineering companies that can't spend $15 million for a Cray--or that have a supercomputer and want the mini-supercomputers to siphon off some of the workload. Most mini-supers cost about one-tenth the price of supercomputers but claim to deliver as much as 40% of the speed and power.

It's a fledgling market so far, but researchers predict mini-supercomputer sales of $1 billion by 1990. Dozens of earnest new companies have sprouted in all parts of the country, particularly in regions eager to repeat the success of high-technology havens such as Northern California's Silicon Valley and the Boston area's Route 128.

From the woods of Oregon to the wide-open spaces of Texas and nestled in the rolling hills of Wisconsin, companies such as Floating Point Systems, Scientific Computer Systems and Convex have been working to establish their position in the mini-super market.

Some of the companies have been lucky enough to have their machines chosen for use at one of the half-dozen or so university supercomputing centers funded by the National Science Foundation.

Even so, the market is sure to get tougher, especially now that IBM has made its first entry, a souped-up version of the 3090 mainframe.

Expects Market Shakeout

"There will be a lot of demand for mini-supercomputers," said Larry Smarr, director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, one of two supercomputer centers at the University of Illinois.

"But there are far more companies than needed to supply the demand, just like there were in the personal computer field. I expect most of these companies to die. The market shakeout phenomenon will not escape mini-supercomputers."

Smarr believes that IBM "will own a good fraction of the market" for mini-supercomputers.

And a major determinant in the survival of these companies is the technology itself. Many mini-supercomputers are being based on different strategies, including new materials, new software languages and new computer designs, which attempt to push beyond the physical limits of today's technologies. A winner will be slow in emerging, experts agree.

"The whole battle," said Ron Gruner, president of Alliant Computer Systems, an Acton, Mass., maker of mini-supers, "is to take new technologies and exploit them as efficiently and quickly as possible."

That the old ways are running out of steam is a given.

"It is getting tougher and tougher to make an individual computer faster and faster . . . by shrinking the size of the components," Smarr said. Miniaturization was the key that helped scientists pack the power of a roomful of transistors onto a fingernail-sized piece of silicon and put computers on desks.

Putting the circuits, connectors and resistors closer together helps reduce the time that it takes for the circuits to pass information between themselves.

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