The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - the research and development arm of the US military - has issued a challenge to nerds, geeks, techies, and boffins to bid on how they would build a petaflops-scale system of nearly unimaginable energy efficiency and compactness. Oh, and the prospective system also needs to be mobile and require no special programming skills to use.
In other words, DARPA wants an AK-47 that crunches numbers. Lots of numbers.
El Reg caught wind of DARPA's ExtremeScale thinking back in June 2009, when DARPA issued a request for information to the HPC community to come up with a supercomputing system that could jam a petaflops in a rack, burn only about 57 kilowatts (enough to be powered by a portable electric generator and including the juice needed to cooling the rack), and be easy to program. The idea seems patently ridiculous based on current technologies, and it's particularly silly without thinking about the price tag of such a development effort.
Still, DARPA is apparently unhappy enough about the current plans for exascale supercomputers from IBM, Cray, and Silicon Graphics - which Uncle Sam more or less pays to be in the HPC business - to go off the board and issue the ExtremeScale challenge to anyone who thinks they can crack the problem. And rather than trying to focus on creating ever-more-powerful supers, DARPA wants much smaller supers with lots of power and crazy levels of energy efficiency. It wants portable petaflops, mainly because you can't trust network links on a battlefield. (Even if you did, as DARPA did, invent the Internet).
You can fill out the request for proposal form to try to get on the list to participate in the bidding process for the Ubiquitous High Performance Computing program at DARPA here and take a look at the detailed goals of the program there.
DARPA is crazy, but it is not insane, and therefore, it does not expect companies to literally support its current applications on such a box - or even to support legacy compilers such as C and Fortran. The UHPC project does not expect the technologies proposed to be available until 2018, and it does not even care so much if the underlying technologies that would be deployed in a UHPC ExtremeScale system get widely commercialized. But DARPA is adamant that it wants to cram the system, its networking, its storage, and its cooling into a cabinet that is 24 inches wide by 78 inches high and 40 inches deep - a little wider and taller than a standard server rack.
DARPA also wants the system to deliver 50 gigaflops per watt on the Linpack benchmark test, with a peak performance of one petaflops. That 57 kilowatt power budget is essentially what is required to completely run the box. The system has to chew on data coming in from a massive streaming sensor array, do single- and double-precision floating point math that is compatible with IEEE754 standards as well as 16-bit, 32-bit, and 64-bit integer math. The UHPC ExtremeScale system will need something on the order of 10 bytes per flops, or 10 petabytes, according to the DARPA specs.