Upping the ante in the fierce battle among the world's supercomputer makers, a partnership including Japan's giant NEC Corp. unveiled plans Monday for what it called "the world's fastest computer," a machine up to eight times more powerful than any currently available.
Although some analysts said the planned supercomputer could alter the balance of power in an industry that has been dominated by a U.S. company, Cray Research of Minneapolis, others cautioned against reading too much into the announcement.
"The machine looks impressive from a technical gobbledygook point of view, but computers are more complicated than maximum speeds," said Stephen Cohen, an analyst with SoundView Financial Group, a Stamford, Conn., brokerage firm. "The more important issue is what portion of the machine's maximum speed can actually be used by any given application." Cohen said that question won't be settled until the machine is available in mid-to-late 1990.
Variety of Complex Tasks
Supercomputers, which number about 400 worldwide, are used for a variety of complex, technical tasks such as developing nuclear weapons, designing aircraft wings and breaking secret codes. They are also used when more traditional computers cannot process information fast enough to simulate and calculate such natural events as the rate of air flowing over an aircraft wing or the interaction of volatile chemicals.
The newly announced supercomputer, one of the SX-X family of supercomputers to be offered by NEC's partnership, boasts the world's fastest processing times, with a clock speed of less than three billionths of one second. The clock speed is a measure of the time it takes the computer to complete the simplest computer instruction. Prices of the SX-X models will range from $5 million to $23 million.
The partnership, which also includes Honeywell Inc. of Minneapolis, said its new models will offer up to eight times the performance of Cray's current machines. The new machines will be manufactured in Japan by NEC and distributed by the partnership.
"It's a very impressive machine and an aggressive position in the market," said Jeffry Canin, a technology analyst in San Francisco. "But let's see what the market looks like when the machine actually is available. . . . Cray is moving ahead with projects for new machines as well."
Patricia Laupheimer, an analyst with the New York investment firm of Shearson Lehman Hutton, argued that the NEC machine would not shift the balance of power in the supercomputing industry any time soon because there is no software available for the NEC machine. "Cray's strength is that it makes a balanced, general purpose machine and there is a rich library of software written for it," she explained. "Cray still has a leg up."
According to analysts, Cray currently controls about 75% of the world market for supercomputers. The remaining 25% is split among ETA, a subsidiary of Control Data, and the Japanese giants NEC, Hitachi and Fujitsu.
However, some analysts said the new NEC-designed systems could give Japan an edge in the race to build computers that work fast enough to simulate various natural phenomena. Japan has led the United States for years in building fast-action microchips, but still trails in supercomputer design.
Raul Mendez, director of the private Institute for Supercomputing Research in Tokyo, called the machine a triumph of Japanese technology. "For the first time we'll see the throughput (processing power) of a Japanese supercomputer exceeding that of the corresponding U.S. supercomputer."
Still, Japanese firms in the supercomputer business face obstacles when dealing with Washington. U.S. officials thwarted an NEC sale to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last year, charging that the Japanese supercomputer market was closed to imports.
The new SX-X series of supercomputer was unveiled in Burlington, Mass., where HNSX, the joint venture between NEC and Honeywell, is based.
Cray Research's stock closed Monday on the New York Stock Exchange at $53.875 a share, off 12.5 cents, while Honeywell closed at $71.50, off $1.75. NEC shares, traded over the counter, closed at $66.375, down 25 cents.
SUPERCOMPUTER INSTALLATIONS WORLDWIDE Cray Research: 220 IBM (mainframes fitted for supercomputing): 300 Fujitsu: 57 Control Data: 43 Thinking Machines: 30 NEC: 14 Hitachi: 12 Miscellaneous experimental: 4 Figures as of December 31, 1988. Source: Associated Press