Boffins craft CPU-less supercomputer

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Boffins craft CPU-less supercomputer

Researchers in Scotland have built a small, power-efficient supercomputer that doesn't use any conventional microprocessors.

The machine, dubbed "Maxwell," was built at the University of Edinburgh by a group known as the FPGA High Performance Computing Alliance (FHPCA). Maxwell eschews conventional CPU processors in favor of 64 field programmable gate array (FPGA) chips.

FPGAs are microchips that can be programmed to carry out specific computing functions. Users can fine-tune the chips to perform only the instructions needed for a certain program, making the FPGA chips more efficient and well-optimised for the operation at hand.

The £3.6m system is housed in a 32-way bladecenter enclosure. Maxwell's builders claim that the FPGA system is ten times more efficient and up to 300 times faster than a conventional system of comparable size.

Maxwell will be targeted at the conventional supercomputing arenas such as seismology, defense planning, computer modeling, and financial engineering. Early demos of the system include oil prospecting and medical imaging tasks.

The main weakness of Maxwell, say its designers, is usability. Perspective commercial customers for the FPGA chips however could be turned off by the dificulty in programming them.

"There are a whole host of technical advances that we know we need to make to make FPGAs more programmable," admitted Edinburgh Parallel Computing Center commercial director Mark Parsons.

"So the next steps for us are to encourage usage of Maxwell and build more projects around the issue of programmability."
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