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Iranians claim to have built Opteron-based supercomputer

Use of processors by research center would run afoul of U.S. trade sanctions; AMD says it hasn't authorized any shipments to Iran, 'directly or indirectly'

December 6, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Despite federal antiterrorism trade sanctions that bar the sale of U.S.-made computer technology to Iran, a computing research center in Tehran claims to have used Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s Opteron processor to build the Middle Eastern country's most powerful supercomputer.

The Iranian High Performance Computing Research Center (IHPCRC), which is located at Tehran's Amirkabir University of Technology, said in an undated announcement on its Web site that it has assembled a Linux-based system with 216 Opteron processing cores. That's a relatively small supercomputer, with a claimed peak performance level of 860 billion floating-point operations per second, or gigaflops. But the research center said that the system, which will be used for weather forecasting and meteorological research, is the fastest built in Iran to date.

This isn't the first time that the Iranians have used U.S.-developed processor technology to build high-performance systems, according to a history posted on the research center's Web site. For instance, the history says that in 2001, prior to the formation of the IHPCRC, researchers at Amirkabir University built a 32-node PC cluster based on Pentium III processors from Intel Corp. A year later, they used Pentium IV chips in another cluster, this one with eight nodes.

But how did the IHPCRC get Opteron processors for the new supercomputer if U.S. technology can't be sold in or shipped to Iran? The research center may have provided a clue, though perhaps inadvertently, in a photo gallery that also can be found on its Web site. (Editor's note: Since this story was posted, the photo gallery appears to have been removed from the IHPCRC's Web site. As a result, the link in this paragraph and in the photo caption that follows are no longer working. A follow-up story with more details has now been posted on Computerworld.com.)

The gallery includes a series of photos dated this year, showing workers assembling what the research center describes as the "cluster of IRIMO." That acronym refers to an Iranian meteorological organization, which would be a perfect fit for the planned uses of the Opteron-based supercomputer.

The first picture in that series of photos (see below) shows a staffer using a screwdriver on what appears to be the components of a server. Behind him, on a table, is a stack of similarly sized boxes, all of which appear to have the word "Thacker" and the initials "U.A.E." written in hand on their sides.

Iranian researcher works on supercomputer cluster
A staffer at the Iranian High Performance Computing Research Center works on the "cluster of IRIMO," in a photo from the center's Web site. (Click for larger image.)
A sharpened image shows more clearly the word Thacker and initials U.A.E. written on one of the boxes at the IHPCRC.
A sharpened image shows more clearly the word "Thacker" and initials "U.A.E." written on one of the boxes at the IHPCRC.

Thacker FZE is an authorized distributor of AMD products that is based in the United Arab Emirates, in the state of Dubai. The company is also listed under the name Sky Electronics on AMD's Web site. Sky Electronics, whose managing director is named Manoj Thacker, says on its Web site that it is a business partner of Intel, Microsoft Corp., Nvidia Corp. and several other technology vendors in addition to AMD.

Although the server components are exposed in the photograph on the IHPCRC's Web site, no lettering or brand names can be made out on what appear to be two processing units. The faces of the two devices are blank, even after the clarity of the photo was enhanced by Computerworld's design staff.

After a copy of the photo was e-mailed to Thacker/Sky Electronics, Anil Clifford, a Dubai-based spokesman for the firm, said Thursday that he didn't understand the image because the company doesn't have any customers in Iran. "It is an embargo [situation] for us," he said.

Clifford said that boxes the size of the ones in the photo could include a variety of components, including server casings and power supplies – all of which are made in Taiwan.



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