Deep Blue v SPARC Enterprise

I like to read the "This Day In History" column in the paper, and this week I've been re-living the infamous chess match between the supercomputer Deep Blue and Garry Kasparov. Today in history, on May 11, 1997, Deep Blue defeated Kasparov in the sixth and final game of their match. I recall as a young (OK, perhaps not young but at least younger) computer engineer, and an amateur chess player myself, following the story in the news papers and on the evening news. A computer had defeated a reigning world chess champion in regulation play.

Ten years later, I was wondering how Deep Blue stacked up to modern supercomputers, like the Sun SPARC Enterprise machines.

I've seen estimates that Deep Blue ran at 11 GFLOPS. I don't know what it cost, but I've seen figures like $5M in captial (not counting the roughly $100M in research and development costs in the decade it took to develop Deep Blue). Deep Blue wasn't a single system; it was a cluster of 32 RS/6000 servers, plus nearly 500 processors specifically designed for playing chess.

Last month the Sun SPARC Enterprise M9000 achieved 1.032 TFLOPS with 64 CPU chips, making it the fastest single-system supercomputer in the world. One hundred times the performance of Deep Blue, at a fraction of the price. A single SPARC64-VI CPU chip would be about 16 GFLOPS, still besting Deep Blue by a good margin. Of course, I don't have specific numbers handy but I'm pretty sure you also can get that kind of performance from a couple of dual-core Opterons in a 1U server (like the Sun Fire X4100) for around $5K.

So, for what a good PC cost in 1997, you can now buy a server the size of a pizza box with the performance of Deep Blue. And for the cost of Deep Blue in 1997, you can buy a dozen SPARC Enterprise M9000's, each with 100 times the performance. That's about three orders of magnitude improvement in the price/performance ratio in a decade. At that rate, in 2017 you'll be able to buy an 11 GFLOPS "supercomputer" for $5, and it will probably be powering your cell phone.

OK, I'm clearly not comparing apples to apples. Deep Blue had the chess processors that probably didn't factor into the 11 GFLOPS rating, ground-breaking algorithms and software, and the genius of Feng-hsiung Hsu behind it. I doubt anyone is going to defeat a chess grandmaster with kchess.

But it is interesting to see how far we've come in ten short years.

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Bob Hueston

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