Iran claims two new supercomputers

After Stuxnet attacks damaged its computer systems, Iran tries for an IT comeback via supercomputing

WASHINGTON -- Iran's government is claiming that it has developed two new supercomputers powerful enough to earn rankings on the Top500 list of the world's most powerful systems.

The supercomputing announcement, made Wednesday, is being treated as a big deal in Iran and involves top Iranian government officials, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

If this announcement was made by any country other than Iran, it would get little attention. The larger of the two systems is far, far behind the current top-ranked system in China.

But a U.S. embargo means Iran has to buy many of its components from the black market. The country is also a target of a cyberwar, as the Stuxnet worm illustrated.

Ahmadinejad discussed this project, via a videoconference with officials at the two universities where these systems were installed, according to government media press reports.

Iran's supercomputing claims could not be independently verified. It may well be a fake and an elaborate attempt to demonstrate IT prowess after the Stuxnet worm hit its nuclear control systems.

It could also be an effort by the regime to offer some distraction from the region's spreading turmoil threatening authoritarian governments.

A photo spread in one of Iran's news outlets shows what purports to be one of the two systems at Amirkabir University of Technology in Tehran.

In it are a series of racks on what may be a raised floor, not unlike a typical data center. Other photos show people at terminals and in conference rooms.

Reports include a claim that the largest system is capable of 89 teraflops. One teraflop equals 1 trillion floating point operations per second. The fastest computers in the world now exceed 1 petaflop, or a thousand trillion floating point operations per second.

Although an embargo prevents U.S. companies from selling microprocessors and other components to Iran, U.S.-made computer technology seems to be readily available in that country.

In 2007, for instance, Iranian officials disclosed the source of AMD chips in a Linux-based high-performance computing system. The name of a distributor in the United Arab Emirates was visible on the boxes in one of the photos.

AMD, at the time, said it had never authorized the sale. The photos were quickly removed from the Iranian site after the details were published.

But Iran's latest supercomputer announcement appears to have no details about the components used to build the systems. Iranian officials have not yet responded to request for details about them.

Mehdi Noorbaksh, an associate professor of international affairs at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, urged skepticism around Iran's supercomputing announcement and said it may well be fake.

"The Iranian government is notorious for fabricating this kind of information -- believe me," said Noorbaksh. "When the government announces something like this, it is very difficult to confirm it."

Noorbaksh said Iran's announcement may be a reaction to the malware attack on its nuclear systems, to demonstrate to the world that "we are in control."

Iran's nuclear capabilities and many of its computers were hurt by the Stuxnet worm, which damaged the country's nuclear refining capabilities.

If Iran wants its systems considered for listing on the Top500 list, it will have to run the high-performance Linpack Benchmark and submit the results to the list. It has thus far not submitted anything to the list, according to a list official.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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