Two Supercomputers


Two Supercomputers Are Better Than OneIf Argonne's combined Blue Gene/P machines were running today, they would easily be the world's fastest. Prices for such a computer range from $50 million to $150 million, depending on configuration, an IBM spokesperson said. While some scientists will use the computers for their research, most of the new computing capacity will be used by labs across the country.
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Argonne National Laboratory, which serves as a lending for scientific computing, is doubling down on supercomputers, installing two of the most advanced units IBM (NYSE: IBM) makes and linking them together to work as one.
In a deal announced Thursday, Argonne will get a computer from IBM that performs 445 trillion calculations per second, the 445 teraflop Blue Gene/P system. Put in human terms, every one of the 6 billion people on Earth would need to perform 70,000 calculations a second to match this supercomputer .
Researchers at companies like Pratt & Whitney and Procter & Gamble, as well as major universities, use Argonne's computing power to solve problems that are inaccessible to ordinary computers. For example, P&G researchers use computer time to simulate the molecular basis of bubble formation to develop better detergents and also improved fire-control chemicals and environmentally-friendly consumer products.
Sum of the Parts Argonne is already installing a new Blue Gene/P that is slower than the 445 teraflop model due for installation next year. When the two are combined, they will operate at 556 teraflops. The lab also operates an older Blue Gene/L model that will continue to run separately at 5.7 teraflops.
"By the time this project is complete, Argonne will be home to one of our country's preeminent computing facilities," said Rick Stevens, associate laboratory director for computing and life sciences.
Indeed, if Argonne's combined Blue Gene/P machines were running today, they would easily be the world's fastest. Prices for such a computer range from $50 million to $150 million, depending on configuration, an IBM spokesperson said. Specific terms of Argonne's deal weren't disclosed.
While some scientists will use the computers for their research, most of the new computing capacity will be used by labs across the country. High-speed connections enable researchers working hundreds of miles from Argonne to run programs as if they were next door.
Jet-Engine Science Pratt & Whitney researchers have used 750,000 hours' worth of computer time this year to simulate conditions inside a jet engine combustor where fuel and oxygen combine. Their goal is to reduce jet engine emissions by 55 percent.
"Modern combustors couldn't be designed without their computer tools," said Peter Bradley, a Pratt & Whitney computer scientist. Argonne not only provides computer time to the company, but also supplies advice and expertise to help use the supercomputer for basic research, he said.
"We don't use the supercomputer to design engines," Bradley said. "We use it to study the science and physics that provides us with tools we use in designing engines."
The U.S. Department of Energy, which funds Argonne and oversees the program that doles out computer time from Argonne and other national labs, at first focused on academic research, but recently has expanded to include industrial scientists, said Herb Schultz, IBM's supercomputer division marketing manager.
"We like that because it exposes the systems to more applications," said Schultz. "It shows how much more science can be done. A lot of times, a supercomputer comes on the market and people think it's just academic and esoteric. We want to get more people using them."
Software Development Part of IBM's deal with Argonne includes a collaboration to develop more open source software for Blue Gene machines to expand the applications available. Argonne computer scientists will also provide feedback to IBM to help in designing future machines.
"Very large machines have unique challenges in making them operate efficiently," said Ray Bair, director of the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility that houses the Blue Genes.
Most work done using Blue Gene machines are simulations intended to provide insights into how fundamental processes such as formation of soap bubbles or combustion of jet fuel works, Bair said.
"The vast majority of very large problems are in the domain that requires a supercomputer," he said.
IBM and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) agreed last month to work with a group of university scientists to expand "cloud computing," where large numbers of server computers will handle tasks presented by millions of users. This need grows out of the popularity of Facebook , MySpace and other social computing platforms.
"Programmers have usually been taught to write for a single computer or a few," said Dennis Quan, chief technology officer of IBM's high performance computing and software group. "They're not taught to write for tens of thousands of machines. But levels of parallelism and complexity are advancing to where in a few short years, this will be very mainstream.

Silicon Brains


Silicon BrainsComputer chips designed to mimic how the brain works could shed light on our cognitive abilities.
By Emily Singer
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Samsung's New Solid-State Drives


Samsung's New Solid-State Drives Target Enterprise ServersSamsung unveiled super-fast solid state drives that use the high-speed SATA II interface. The South Korean firm is producing sample 1.8-inch and 2.5-inch drives that offer a boost in performance over existing drives. The new drives have a sequential write speed of 100 MB per second and sequential read speed of 120 MB per second.
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Samsung has begun sampling new 1.8-inch and 2.5-inch 64 GB solid state drives (SSDs) aimed at enterprise servers and high-end PCs, the company announced Sunday.
Using a super-fast SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment) II/native SATA interface, the drives offer a sequential write speed of 100 MB per second and a sequential read speed of 120 MB per second.
"The 64 GB SATA II SSD is based on Samsung's cutting-edge NAND technology with dramatically improved performance specs that are taking system performance to a whole new level of efficiency," said Jim Elliott, director of NAND flash marketing for Samsung Semiconductor.
Company officials could not be reached for information on expected pricing or timing of availability for the drives.
Twice the Speed The new drives combine a 50 nm-class, single-level-cell (SLC) 8 Gb flash chip with a proprietary, high-speed SATA controller and supporting software. Their interface speed is 3 Gb per second -- twice that of Samsung's SATA I predecessor, the company said.
The SATA II drives also require only half as much power as do hard drives typically used in notebook PCs, which generally consume 1.9 watts, and one-tenth the power consumed by enterprise-class 15,000 rpm hard drives in servers, Samsung said.
Samsung's 32 GB PATA (Parallel ATA) solid state drive debuted in March 2006, followed by a 64 GB version using the SATA I interface in March of this year.
The market for solid state drives based on NAND flash memory is expected to show 74 percent compounded annual growth over the next five years, reaching US$10 billion in 2012, Samsung said, citing data from Web-Feet Research.
Maturing Market Indeed, the market for solid state drives will continue to mature over the next couple of years, Jeff Janukowicz, research manager for SSD and HDD (hard disk drive) components at IDC, told TechNewsWorld.
"Our view is that solid state drives like these are a glimpse at the future in terms of what people can expect in the laptop and server world," Janukowicz said. "Solid state drives offer a lot of advantages over traditional hard drives, which ultimately they're aiming to replace."
For instance, compared with traditional hard drives, which are based on a mechanical system, solid state drives are faster and offer reduced power consumption, he noted.
"In applications where you want a faster response, like for booting up the operating system or opening files, solid state drives have a real advantage," he said.
Higher Prices Capacity tends to be somewhat lower on SSDs, but their main downside is their price, which remains relatively high, he added.
"I think it's certainly an attractive solution, particularly for people looking for higher performance out of their servers," Janukowicz said.
SanDisk is Samsung's principal competitor in the market for SSDs, but because of Samsung's dominance in NAND flash media, it has an inherent advantage, he added.
"The NAND flash media is where a lot of the cost in these drives lies," Janukowicz said.
Catching Up Price is definitely a factor, and 64 GB is "not very big," Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies, told TechNewsWorld. "Today, hard drives are typically 80 GB, and much bigger is available, reaching up to 160 GB, 200 GB or even beyond."
As a result, users won't likely pay the higher prices for SSDs unless they really need their improved durability, speed and power consumption, he said.
The 1.8- and 2.5-inch form factors of Samsung's new offerings are also more typical of mobile sizes, he added.
Looking forward, solid-state technology still has a ways to go before it will replace traditional hard drives, Kay predicted.
"Solid state drives are not really direct replacements for spinning media, but they're getting there," he said. "It's a question of when they will be comparable from a price perspective."

Raising Consciousness


Raising Consciousness
Some seemingly unconscious patients have startlingly complex brain activity. What does that mean about their potential for recovery? And what can it tell us about the nature of consciousness?
In 2003, 39-year-old Terry Wallis uttered his first word ("mom") in the 19 years since a car accident had left him with severe brain damage. He had spent much of the previous two decades in what neurologists call a minimally conscious state, somewhere in the gray area between coma and consciousness. In the years before his awakening, however, Wallis's family had noticed that he was growing more alert and responsive, occasionally nodding, grunting, or even crying, until one day he spontaneously started to speak. Though Wallis still has serious impairments in memory and movement, he continues to make remarkable gains.
No one knows what spurred Wallis's return to the waking world. But neurologist Nicholas Schiff is determined to find out. A researcher at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, Schiff is one of a handful of scientists studying people like Wallis, patients who spend months or years seemingly unaware of the outside world and unable to communicate. Using new brain-imaging techniques, Schiff is hoping to better understand the complex nature of consciousness--and find ways to help treat the thousands of patients who suffer from severe consciousness disorders.
Eight months after Wallis's first words, Schiff and his collaborators began taking snapshots of Wallis's brain using a new method that can create detailed maps of the brain's nerve fibers. What they found surprised them. Over the next year and a half, the researchers' images seemed to show that Wallis's brain had partially healed itself. But how? And what triggered the healing process?
In the last few decades, improved medical technologies have kept more people alive after brain injuries, but many of them have been left in apparently permanent states of impaired consciousness. Immediately after a severe brain injury, a patient often enters a coma--a period of unconsciousness that typically lasts days or, at most, weeks. Those who survive do not necessarily awaken; instead, they may enter a vegetative state or a minimally conscious state (MCS), which can last for years. While it's difficult to determine how many minimally conscious patients there are in the United States (MCS was introduced as a diagnostic category only in 2002), some estimates put the number at 25,000 or more--about 10 times the number of vegetative patients. (The two conditions can be difficult even for neurologists to distinguish. Vegetative patients are defined as those totally unaware of their environment, while patients who are in a minimally conscious state may occasionally laugh or cry, reach for objects, or even respond to simple questions.)
Unlike Wallis, most patients who spend years in a minimally conscious state never wake up. Prospects for recovery diminish as time ticks by, so many doctors adopt a sort of therapeutic nihilism toward those who are persistently unconscious, assuming that their cases are hopeless, says Steven Laureys, a neurologist at the University of Li├Ęge in Belgium. MCS patients have few treatment options, and most don't get rigorous long-term follow-up or intensive rehabilitation. Wallis, for example, had no neurologist, and not much medical history was collected during his 19-year hiatus from consciousness.

A New Nanogenerator


A New NanogeneratorResearchers are experimenting with a novel nanowire material to power tiny biosensors and portable devices. By Prachi Patel-PreddWireless biosensors that monitor pathogens in water and measure blood pressure or cancer biomarkers in the body are shrinking to nanometer dimensions. To operate them, researchers are looking for equally small power sources. Nanowires that convert mechanical energy into electricity are a promising technology.
Now researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) have taken the first step toward building a nanogenerator out of barium titanate. So far, efforts to make nanogenerators have focused on zinc-oxide nanowires. But barium titanate could lead to better generators because it shows a stronger piezoelectric effect, says mechanical-science and engineering professor Min-Feng Yu, who is leading the research at UIUCexperiments show that a barium-titanate nanowire can generate 16 times as much electricity as a zinc-oxide nanowire from the same amount of mechanical vibrations, he says.
Nanogenerators could lead to many advances: biomedical sensors powered by blood flow or muscle contractions, tiny gas sensors that run on wind or acoustic waves, pathogen monitors powered by water flow, and portable electronics that are hooked up to nanowires in shoes. "The nanogenerator idea has become more and more convincing, " says Yi Cui, materials-science and engineering professor at Stanford University. "It's an idea that might work."
In 2006, a team of researchers led by Zhong Lin Wang of the Georgia Institute of Technology first showed that zinc-oxide nanowires could harvest mechanical energy to generate electricity. Wang's group has since made a lot of progress, most recently demonstrating a zinc-oxide nanowire array that outputs direct current in response to ultrasonic vibrations. (See "Nanogenerator Fueled by Vibrations.")
The UIUC team is the first to use barium titanate. In an online Nano Letters paper, Yu and his colleagues show that applying vibrations to a single barium-titanate nanowire leads to a small energy output. In their experiment, the researchers bridge a nanowire across a gap on a substrate, keeping one end stationary and moving the other end. The output energy is extremely small--about 0.3 attojoules--but for the same setup, a zinc-oxide nanowire gives 16 times lesssmaller energy output, Yu says.
Xudong Wang, a researcher in Zhong Lin Wang's (no relation) group and a 2007 TR35 winner, is happy to see progress on using materials other than zinc oxide to make nanogenerators. He says that the results look promising. The biggest advantage with using barium titanate, he feels, is that "it is possible to generate higher voltages than zinc oxide. This is very important for a power source."
But zinc oxide has its own advantages. It is nontoxic to biological systems, so it might be better suited than barium titanate for implantable devices. Also, it is easier to control zinc-oxide growth in order to fabricate nanowire arrays. "To make an applicable device, you need to have many nanowires with the same orientation in the same location," Xudong Wang says. That could be hard to achieve with barium titanate.
Yu acknowledges the difficulties with growing barium-titanate nanowires. His and his colleagues' work is preliminary at this point, he says, but it already shows the potential for making more-efficient, higher-output nanogenerators. As for Cui, he says that barium-titanate nanogenerators might be feasible, but he cautions that "in terms of making a working device, certainly there's still a way to go."

HP, MS Aim to Tidy Up Digital


HP, MS Aim to Tidy Up Digital Clutter With New Home Server
Homes bursting with digital data will be the prime targets of Microsoft and HP when the duo's MediaSmart Server running Windows Home Server ships later this month. The device is designed to present users with a relatively easy way to share, organize and back up their personal media data. The word "server" in the name, however, may be a turn-off to consumers with less tech know-how.
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Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) and HP (NYSE: HPQ) announced the availability of the HP MediaSmart Server running Windows Home Server. The new class of server enables consumers to protect, connect and share digital media and documents.
Aimed at consumers, the MediaSmart Server (MSS) is the flagship product in what Microsoft said is an entirely new category of consumer products.
"Digital devices and content are everywhere in our day-to-day lives, and they are important all the time," said Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft. "With the launch of Windows Home Server, Microsoft and its partners are creating a new consumer product category that will help people keep their digital media safe and make it easier for them to enjoy it with friends and family."
The HP MediaSmart Server will begin shipping later this month. The 500 GB version is priced at US$599. For consumers with greater storage needs, there is also a 1 TB model for $749.
Are You Being Served? Designed principally for homes with several personal computers, the MediaSmart Server provides consumers with powerful sever technology similar to that found in the workplace. It will automatically back up Windows XP-based and Vista-based PCs each night and provides a central place to organize digital documents and media. The MSS also includes a Windows Live Internet address to access the server from just about anywhere and share content with friends and family.
In addition, the server monitors the health and security status of networked PCs and can stream media to other devices throughout the home. By streaming to the Xbox 360 , for example, users can to listen to music, look at photos or watch videos on their television.
"The product will appeal mostly to people with three or more PCs who also tend to have a lot of digital media (photos, videos, music, TV shows) that they want to back up or share," Steve Kleynhans, a Gartner (NYSE: IT) analyst, told TechNewsWorld.
Unlike enterprise-class servers, however, the MSS is basically a computer with a lot of storage and a processor that is a little smaller than those found on business servers, said Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates.
"It's got this special job, so it is kind of a special service PC, and then the interface has been created to hide most of the complexity of the PC from you. All you see are a few simple buttons you hit to do tasks that are pretty clear. It's sort of built on top of a PC architecture," he told TechNewsWorld.
Back It Up The benefit of having a central storage location for digital memories will appeal to consumers with a bit of technological savvy under their belts, Kleynhans noted.
"Central storage for your digital memories with a pretty solid backup facility coupled with remote access and ongoing expandability [are the benefits for consumers]. It's not going to appeal to everyone, but more technically centric users will find the combination attractive," he said.
"You have to have at least two copies of everything. If something hits a snag, you've just lost everything, and the chances of that happening in two places at once are pretty rare. If you lost either your computer or this centralized storage repository you could replace one or the other of them before you lost your data," Kay echoed. "And since the data is more important than any hardware, you'd better have at least two copies."
Microsoft Inside Billed as a "stay-at-home" server, the MSS is powered by Windows Home Server (WHS) platform. Formerly known as Quattro, Microsoft introduced the new software in January at the Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas. Since Quattro's unveiling, Microsoft released a software development kit to allow third-party developers to create applications that will work in conjunction with WHS.
So far, some 35 third-party vendors have built WHS add-ons, including software for personal Web sites and blogging, media streaming, online backup and storage, home security and home automation, as well as software to detect viruses and malware.
Microsoft has done a "pretty good job" developing server software that is easy to setup and operate, according to Kleynhans.
"[They] did a good job balancing capabilities with ease of use. There are a still some rough edges, and it will undoubtedly get better over time, but it's a pretty reasonable first version," he stated.
Home Server Invasion HP is just one of several leading manufacturers releasing hardware running WHS products. The Iomega (NYSE: IOM) HomeCenter Server will be available in early 2008. Also hitting stores shelves early next year is the Lifeware Lifestorage server that offers enterprise class capabilities to consumers.
Europeans can look for the MaxData Belinea o.center, an energy-efficient solution with advanced management and media functions as well as the Fujitsu Siemens Scaleo Home Server 1900, with 1TB capacity, gigabit Ethernet and advanced power management features, by the end of the year.
For those who cannot wait, there is the Tranquil PC T7-HAS Harmony Home Server. It is a small, quiet, energy-efficient solution available at 500 GB and 1 TB. The Velocity Micro Net Magix HomeServer is also small and can be situated horizontally or vertically. It starts at 1 TB of storage.
With several devices already on the market and more to come, Kleynhans thinks this new product category is headed for success.
"The real key to success will be getting users to look past the name. Calling it a 'server' automatically raises red flags for many less sophisticated users who immediately associate that term with complexity and the need for IT skills," Kleynhans explained.
"If they can get users to look beyond that and see the intelligence and automation that has been wrapped into the package, the product family should find a receptive audience -- at least with the more technically centered users. Basic external drives and even network attached storage devices, are good options, but don't match the home server in terms of capabilities," he concluded

Glue That Sticks


Glue That Sticks to Nearly EverythingFor an easy-to-make adhesive inspired by mussels, possible applications abound. By Kevin BullisFlexible displays, water-purification filters, and materials that convert heat directly into electricity could be easier to make thanks to a new polymer that allows researchers to coat almost any object, even one made of Teflon, with microscopic patterns of metals and organic materials.
Researchers at Northwestern University designed the polymer to mimic a protein-based glue that mussels use to attach themselves to rocks, wood, plastic, and steel--indeed, just about any material they encounter. The researchers, led by Phillip Messersmith, a professor of biomedical engineering and materials science and engineering at Northwestern, identified an easy-to-make compound similar to active elements in this mussel glue. They found that under the right conditions, the compound forms an extremely thin polymer film on the surface of just about any material that it's applied to. This film can in turn chemically bind to a wide variety of materials that have useful functions. Many other methods for "functionalizing" materials have been developed, but according to Marcus Textor, a materials professor at the Federal Institute of Technology, in Switzerland, this one stands out because it's easy and extremely versatile. "What I find fascinating is that this is a relatively simple system," Textor says. "Often, one has to find a particular solution for a particular substrate. But this is a universal adhesive that works on many different surfaces."
The new adhesive will allow nearly any object to be easily and inexpensively coated with a veneer of metal or some other functional material, including materials that keep objects free of bacteria or encourage the growth of specific types of cells. The coatings would be thin enough that they wouldn't change the shape of the underlying object; a surgical instrument, Messersmith says, could be given an antibacterial coating without compromising its performance. One application that the Northwestern researchers have been exploring is water filters that use tiny pellets coated with the adhesive. As water runs through a cylinder full of the pellets, the adhesive pulls toxic metals out of the water by binding to them.
The researchers have also demonstrated that the adhesive can be carved into intricate patterns through conventional microlithography. If a solution containing metal salts washes over such a pattern, metal will stick only to the adhesive. This could be a way to print electronic circuits onto just about any object. Deposited on a flexible substrate, such circuits could be useful for flexible displays. The ability to create microscopic patterns of organic materials could also be useful to biologists. The Northwestern researchers have demonstrated that it's possible to create coatings that bind to a specific type of acid important for blood-vessel growth and stem-cell differentiation. The ability to deposit precise patterns of this and other organic materials could make it easier to build microfluidic devices that help explain biological mechanisms.
To develop the new adhesive, the researchers studied the chemical components of a protein in mussel glue, identifying important functional chemical groups. In earlier work, they'd made a glue based on one of these groups. (See "Nanoglue Sticks Underwater.") But the resulting glue worked only with inorganic materials and was difficult to make. The new adhesive contains two chemical groups found in mussel glue, rather than just one. The combination allows the adhesive to bind to both organic and inorganic materials. What's more, the new adhesive is readily available. The researchers noted that the two chemical groups, amines and catechols, are found in dopamine, a compound best known as a neurotransmitter. At the right pH level, dopamine self-assembles into polymer chains to produce thin films of the adhesive. It's also sold commercially, and it's inexpensive.
The adhesive, which is described in the current issue of Science, is already attracting the interest of other researchers. For example, Nicholas Kotov, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan, intends to use it to make thermoelectric materials--materials that convert heat directly into electricity. Such materials must conduct electricity well but heat badly. Kotov says that it may be possible to use the adhesive to bind together electrically conductive materials such as carbon nanotubes. The adhesive itself could serve as a thermally insulating layer, he says.
Another researcher, Herbert Waite, a professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, calls Messersmith's work very interesting. But he notes some limitations that could be exceeded through further study of the mussel that served as the adhesive's inspiration. Messersmith's adhesive can be applied only under conditions in which concentrations of the dopamine and pH levels are strictly maintained. Ideally, Waite says, it would be nice to have a glue that, like the mussel's, can be applied to any substrate, even in water, without external control of environmental parameters.