by C.G. Lynch

Seven Wonders of the IT World

Sep 07, 20076 mins
Data Center

The fastest supercomputer. The most intriguing data center. The constantly changing core at the heart of Linux. Take a tour of the most impressive and most unusual marvels of the IT world.

First, there were the Seven Wonders of the World. Then there was a New Seven Wonders list, voted on Internet-style. That got us thinking: What are the seven wonders of the IT world? Here’s a look at seven of the biggest, most extreme and most unusual computers and projects. By the way, do you have a vote for an eighth wonder? Tell us about it by commenting at the end of this story.

Computer Closest to the North Pole:

Webcam #1

Who’s in charge: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory takes care of this floating eye at the top of the world.

A view close to the North Pole from Webcam #1

Make and model: NetCam XL, made by StarDot Technologies.

Proximity to the pole: Varies. “Since the North Pole is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, we deploy our instrumentation on an ice floe as close to the pole as we can,” says Nancy Soreide, associate director for IT at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. “However, the ice floe does not stay at or near the pole. It drifts.”

How it works: The webcam’s container stands on a metal apparatus, on top of a piece of plywood and the ice. A battery floats beneath the ice surface, powering the webcam, which sends back pictures via satellite.

Prime time: Runs only during the balmier months, between April and October.

Life span: Think Titanic—at the end of each year’s season, the webcam sinks, and is replaced by a newer model.

Operating temperature: From a chilly minus 40 degrees F to a balmy 120 degrees F.

Resolution: 2048 by 1536 (3.1 megapixels).

Weight: 19.5 ounces.

Dimensions: 3.25 inches wide (82.5 millimeters) by 2.20 inches high (56 millimeters) by 6.6 inches deep (167 millimeters).

On the scene: Lots of ice but no Santa sightings or flying reindeer, to date.

Next: The Computer Farthest from Earth

Computer farthest from Earth:

NASA’s Voyager 1 satellite

Distance from Earth: Voyager is three times farther away than Pluto. That’s to say at least 4 billion kilometers, times three.

NASA’s Voyager satellite computes at the edge of space as we know it

Distance from the sun: 15.44 terameters.

Distance logged per day: 1 million miles.

Years old: Almost 30, having launched on Sept. 5, 1977.

Places it’s dropped by: Jupiter and Saturn, on the way to the edge of space as we know it.

How it communicates with Earth: Uses NASA’s Deep Space Network, a system of antennas around the Earth. There’s no IM out here: Signals traveling at light speed take 14 hours one-way to reach Voyager.

Daily to-do list: Collects data on solar wind, energetic particles, magnetic fields and radio waves.

Powered by: Radioisotope thermoelectric generators.

Power needed: About 300 watts, the amount of power needed for a bright lightbulb.

Next: Google’s Ultra-mysterious Data Center

World’s most intriguing data center:


Location: The Dalles, Oregon, on the banks of the Columbia River, 80 miles east of Portland.

Google’s new home

Main attractions: Hydroelectric dam for power, two four-story cooling towers.

B.G. (Before Google): Pioneers knew The Dalles as the end of the Oregon trail.

Jobs inside the data center to date: Between 100 and 200. Google won’t specify.

Code name: Called Project 02 by the locals.

Wired by: A fiber optic artery looped through the surrounding wilderness.

Secrecy level: High. Two reporters from the local newspaper are the only media who’ve been inside the compound and written about it (See “Inside the World of Google”): Google treats any and all details as though they belong to the National Security Agency.

Size: 30-acre site.

Number of servers: Google’s mum. It has an estimated 500,000 around the world, spread across 25 locations.

Storage: Across all its data centers, Google stores an estimated 200 petabytes.

Top searches inside the compound: We’d bet it’s a tie between “Britney Spears” and “Web 2.0.”

Next: Grid Computing on a Global Scale

World’s largest scientific grid computing project:

The E-sciencE II (EGEE-II) project

Launched: September 2006, for use by scientists around the world.

A Google Earth view of European sites hooked into the EGEE grid computing project

Helps power: Large-scale scientific research projects in fields from geology to chemistry—for example, will analyze data from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator being built to help investigate details around the Big Bang and related physics questions.

Amount of work it does: 98,000 jobs a day, more than 1 million per month.

Juggling ability: Runs about 30,000 jobs concurrently, on average.

Number of sites connected to the EGEE infrastructure: About 240.

Number of countries connected to the EGEE infrastructure: 45.

Number of CPUs available to users, 24/7: More than 36,000.

Storage capacity available: About 5 PB disk space (5 million GB).

Next: The Top Gun of Supercomputers

World’s fastest supercomputer:

IBM BlueGene/L (BGL)

Powered by: 65,536 dual-processor computer nodes.

The BlueGene/L supercomputer at home at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Home base: This 2,500-square-foot marvel lives at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif.

Claim to fame: Helps researchers answer physics questions about stockpiled nuclear weapons and materials like Plutonium.

Power requirements: 1.5 megawatts (equivalent to a 2,000-horsepower diesel engine).

Clocked speed: Rated fastest in the world after clocking sustained performance of 280.6 trillion operations per second, or teraflops.

Approximate cost: As part of a larger contract including other supercomputers, just under $100 million.

Measure of compute capability: To match the power of this behemoth, every man, woman and child on Earth would need to perform 60,000 calculations per second (without transposing digits or forgetting to “carry the one”).

Brawny bandwidth: Its internal communication network would support 150 simultaneous phone conversations for every person in the United States.

Waiting in the wings: IBM has announced a successor, Blue Gene/P, designed to deliver three times the processing power of the Blue Gene/L.

Next: A Most Lilliputian PC

Smallest PC to run Windows Vista:

OQO, Model 02

The package: OQO’s Handheld PC checks in at 5.6 (wide) by 3.3 (high) by 1 (deep) inches.

The diminutive OQO handheld PC weighs in at less than one pound

The skinny: Weighs just under 1 pound (weight varies with configuration).

Vitals: 1.5GHz processor, Windows XP or Vista, 30 or 60GB hard drive, 512MB or 1GBDDR DRAM, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth.

Most likely to twist your fingers into yoga positions: Thumb keypad with 57 keys total, mouse buttons, digital pen, programmable thumbwheel.

Stayin’ alive: Lithium-ion polymer battery keeps it cooking for up to three hours.

Price of entry: Starts at $1,499.

James Bond-worthiness: Sleek, but we’d bet 007 would insist on something even smaller.

Next: Taking Money from Bill Gates’ Pocket

Biggest Paradigm Change in Enterprise Software:

Linux kernel

Created by: Linus Torvalds, in 1991, helping open-source developers collectively craft a viable alternative to Microsoft operating systems.

The Linux kernel contains 8.2 million lines of code, with approximately 86 lines added every hour

Number of developers: Total since 1991 is unknown; 3,200 developers for the kernel as of release 2.6.22.

New releases: Every 2.6 months.*

Quick change artists: 2.89 changes made to the kernel every hour.

Lines of code: 8.2 million and growing (about 10 percent per year).

Amount of code added every hour: 85.63 lines.

Revenue diverted from Microsoft: Perhaps only Mr. Gates knows.

*Unless otherwise marked, statistics reflect Linux kernel releases of the past 2.5 years (version 2.6.11 through 2.6.21).