From 3 To ∞ In 7 Months (6/21/04)

So does everyone remember that oh-so-glorious moment in the sun last year when Virginia Tech showed the world just how much kiester a few hundred Macs could kick, and for how little money? Last November the school's "Big Mac" project (officially dubbed "System X") plowed its way headlong into the deep water of the supercomputing pool, where the big boys play: for roughly $5 million and after a mere few months' worth of work, Virginia Tech's 1,100-Mac cluster officially ranked as the third fastest supercomputer on the planet, beating out dozens of systems that had cost ten times as much and taken five times as long to staple together. Suddenly all those blowhards who insisted that Macs could never do any heavy lifting had to search a little further down the list to find any Intels; the fastest Intel system at the time was a Dell-made Xeon cluster with 300 more processors than System X, each running at a clock speed over 50% faster than the Macs'-- which only placed fourth. Ahhhh, life was sweet.

But as we said at the time, we should have enjoyed it while we could, "since it's probably not going to last for long." Little did we know how painfully right we'd be; faithful viewer Mitchell Elliott informs us that the TOP500 list has just been updated again, and System X is no longer in third place. With all the new systems being built all the time, we certainly didn't expect System X to hold its ground, but it's not ranked fourth, either. Or fifth, tenth, or fiftieth. In fact, it didn't score high enough to make it onto the list at all. No, it's not because 498 faster supercomputers went online in the past six months or so; it's because, at the time of the required speed score submissions, Virginia Tech's stack-o'-Macs was cranking out slightly fewer GFlops than your average microwave oven with a smart-defrost feature. Because it's in pieces, G, remember?

Sure, you know the drill: Virginia Tech announced that it was going to replace all 1,100 dual-processor 2.0 GHz Power Macs with 1,100 dual-processor 2.0 GHz Xserve G5s, which would save a lot of space and chew through less power. With the Xserve order placed, the school figured it'd be a good time to start scraping together some cash with the supercomputer equivalent of a yard sale, so it began unloading those "limited edition" Power Macs through catalog resellers in anticipation of receiving their new rack-mountable goodies. And then, suddenly, bam-- Apple admitted the existence of massive Xserve G5 shipping delays that cast Virginia Tech's third-place cluster into a G5-less limbo of nonviability. Hence, no GFlops come ranking time, and no ranking.

It's not the end of the world, of course, since System X will jump back onto the charts in six months when the next list gets published-- assuming the Xserves show up by then. We know that Apple delivery times cultivate a certain defensive pessimism, but we're actually pretty confident that Virginia Tech will be back online in plenty of time; Think Secret recently reported that Apple is finally close to filling all of its Xserve G5 backorders, so barring some sort of ruinous catastrophe like a giant asteroid colliding with earth and starting another ice age, we oughta be in business.

If System X were currently online, and assuming that it hadn't gotten any faster or slower since November, it'd currently rank fifth, which is perfectly respectable given its low cost and chip count-- and the fact that it'd still be faster than that Dell-built Xeon cluster. Every supercomputer ranked higher than System X would have at least 86% more processors and probably cost a bundle more. Still, it's a bit disappointing to see that the number two slot has been taken over by a new Intel Itanium 2 cluster, while the PowerPC only slots in at fourth. But next time, baby-- next time...

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The above scene was taken from the 6/21/04 episode:

June 21, 2004: Apple keeps up its breakneck product release pace, introducing iPod-on-BMW and Apple Remote Desktop 2. Meanwhile, the Mac-based third-fastest supercomputer vanishes completely from the latest rankings, and Apple fails to secure trademark protection to use its logo on clothing, hats, and shoes in China...

Other scenes from that episode:

  • 4769: June Just Keeps On Giving (6/21/04)   Holy feral cats, remember when we said that June was being good to us this year, plotwise? Well, we didn't know the half of it! First Apple sprang AirPort Express and AirTunes on all of us, then it finally released those speed-bumped Power Macs we'd been waiting for since the Cleveland administration, then came the long-awaited European dialect of the iTunes Music Store-- at a Steve-hosted London media event, no less...

  • 4771: It's Just Gotta Be The Shoes (6/21/04)   Oh, for the glory days of Apple court theatrics! Whether it was a winner-takes-all billion-dollar tussle over ColorSync patents, a lawsuit against an unknown defendant, or a guest appearance on another hit show like "Redmond Justice," there was always some rib-stickin' entertainment simmering on Apple's legal stove...

Or view the entire episode as originally broadcast...

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