<<

. 87
( 118 .)



>>

The CRAY had a random access semiconductor memory capable of
transferring up to 320 million words per second, or the equivalent of
about 2,500 300-page books; NSA could not have been disappointed.
And when it was hooked up to the computer's specialized input-output
subsystem, the machine could accommodate up to forty-eight disk
storage units, which could hold a total of almost 30 billion words, each
no farther away than 80 millionths of a second.
In a field where time is measured in nanoseconds”billionths of a
second”seven years is an eternity. Thus it was with tremendous
excitement that in June 1983 the agency made space in its basement for
a new arrival from Chippewa Falls, the CRAY X-MP. Serial number 102
stamped on its side, the machine was the first X-MP to be delivered to a



494
customer; NSA thus had the most powerful computer in the world at the
time. The six-ton brain, which contained forty-five miles of wiring and
required a fifty-ton refrigeration unit to keep it cool, was revolutionary.
Rather than achieving its gains in speed simply by using a faster
processor, the X-MP used two processors, working in parallel. Two
separate jobs could be run at the same time, or one job could run on
both processors. This capability made the X-MP five times faster than
even the most advanced CRAY-1, the CRAY-IS/1000.
To NSA, parallel processing was the wave of the future. Among the
projects the agency was closely involved with was the Butterfly processor,
which linked 148 microprocessors. Developed by the Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency's (DARPA's) Strategic Computing Program,
Butterfly could have been scaled up to combine 256 or 512 or even 1,000
linked processors. Future testing included plans to link about 1 million
processors.
The X-MP arrived just in time. That same year NSA secretly put into
operation an enormous worldwide computer network codenamed
Platform. The system tied together, into a single cyber-web, listening
posts belonging to NSA, GCHQ, and other Sigint agencies around the
world, with NSA as the central brain.
Two years later, in 1985, NSA's basement complex became even more
crowded with the long-awaited arrival of the CRAY-2. With its bright red
Naugahyde base and transparent, blue-tinted towers of bubbling liquid
coolant, Seymour Cray's latest masterpiece looked more like bordello
furniture than a super number cruncher in a codebreaking factory.
Nicknamed Bubbles, the $17.6 million computer was almost human,
with cool, bubbling Fluorinert, also used as an artificial blood plasma,
running through its system. The liquid was necessary to keep the
enormous heat generated by electrons flowing through the tightly packed
circuit boards from causing a meltdown.
The unit of speed used in assessing supercomputers is the "flop,"
"floating point operations per second." Whereas it may take the average
person several minutes to calculate with a pencil the correct answer to a
single multiplication problem, such as 0.0572 x 8762639.8765,
supercomputers are measured by how many times per second they can
solve such problems. If it takes one second to come up with the answer,
including where to place the "floating" decimal point, then the computer
is said to operate at one flop per second. Bubbles, on the other hand,
was able to perform at an astonishing 1.2 gigaflops, or 1.2 billion
mathematical calculations a second. This made it up to twelve times
faster than its predecessor and 40,000 to 50,000 times faster than a
personal computer of that time.
By 1988 workers were laying wires and arranging power for still



495
another new product from the backwoods of Wisconsin, the CBAY Y-MP.
So dense were the chips on the new machine that engineers were now
able to squeeze eight processors into a space originally designed for only
one. Working together, and under ideal conditions, the processors were
capable of performing between 2 billion and 4 billion operations a
second.
In the mid to late 1980s, the pace of supercomputer development was
so fast that NSA barely had enough time to boot up each new mega-
machine before a newer one was wheeled into its basement "flop house."
The race to build the fastest supercomputer began to resemble a
mainframe Grand Prix. Sleek, shiny, and ever more powerful new
machines were continuously zooming to the starting line while engineers
worked on ever more powerful and speedy designs. Nobody wanted to be
left in the dust. In September 1987, Steve Chen, the Chinese-born
computer superstar who lead the Cray Research design team on the X-
MP and Y-MP projects, left Cray after his machines became too expensive
and risky. He was quickly hired by IBM. "Five years from now," boasted
an IBM executive, "we should be at 100 billion gigaflops. A problem that
takes three months to do now, we want to do in a day."
Off in the shadows, the Sandia National Laboratory, in Albuquerque,
was tweaking a chunky little blue box. Three feet on a side and known as
the Ncube, or hypercube, the computer was "massively" parallel, with
1,024 processors, each as powerful as a traditional minicomputer. In a
test, Sandia asked the computer to calculate the stresses inside a
building beam supported only at one end. A powerful minicomputer
working twenty-four hours a day would have taken twenty years to arrive
at an answer, but the lightning-fast Ncube accomplished it in a week.
At ETA, a subsidiary of Control Data Corporation, a dark, bubble-
topped box known as the ETA 10 was unveiled. An eight-processor
powerhouse, it used computer chips that were smaller and denser than
those used by Cray Research. Liquid nitrogen carried away the excess
heat. And by using only one circuit board, the engineers were able to
reduce the space that electrons have to travel during calculations. The
end result was a $50 million black box designed to operate at a peak rate
of 10 billion calculations per second, 30 times faster than previous
supercomputers.
Not to be outdone, Los Alamos National Laboratories, by stringing
together an array of supercomputers and associated networks, was able
to perform more computing work in a twenty-four-hour period than had
been done by all of humanity before the year 1962. And that estimate
was considered conservative by other researchers, who suggested that a
date in the late 1970s might be more accurate.
The speed of electrons, however, was not NSA's most immediate


496
problem; the agency was also worried about the speed of the Japanese.
Japan was the only other nation aggressively pursuing supercomputer
development. In the summer of 1988, a gathering of leading computer
science experts, among them NSA's director of supercomputer research,
met to assess Japan's progress in supercomputers. If they felt confident
when they walked into the meeting, they were more than a little nervous
when they left. Starting only six years earlier, Japan had already
matched or surpassed the United States in a field the United States
invented and had been advancing for twenty years.
The main problem for the American supercomputer industry was
dependence on Japanese computer companies”their arch-competitors
in a cutthroat business”for critical parts, such as computer chips, for
their machines. This was a result of the gradual abandonment of
semiconductor manufacturing in the United States during the mid to late
1980s. In 1986, for example, NSA was virtually dependent on a Japanese
company, Kyocera, for critical components that went into 171 of its 196
different computer chips, according to the minutes of a Department of
Defense study group. When, without warning, Kyocera stopped making a
component known as a ceramic package, used in a key chip, NSA began
to shudder.
In a worst-case scenario, Japanese computer manufacturers could
slow down or cut off the supply of essential components to their
American supercomputer competitors”and NSA. This fear led the panel
to conclude that within a few years, "U.S. firms would be most fortunate
if they found themselves only a generation or so behind."
As a result of such worries, NSA, with the help of National
Semiconductor, built its own $85 million microelectronics production
and laboratory plant, known as the Special Processing Laboratory.
Located in Crypto City, the ultra-modern, windowless, 60,000-square-
foot building first began producing chips in 1991. Today it employs
several hundred people. The building contains 20,000 square feet of
"class 10" clean rooms”rooms whose air is 10,000 times cleaner than
normal air. The water must also be ultra-pure because the particles in
the water can destroy a transistor.
Building its own plant also solved another problem for NSA: the need
for supersecrecy in producing highly customized parts for use in the
agency's unique codebreaking machines. These components,
"applications specific integrated circuits" (ASICs), are often the "brain" of
a codebreaking system, thus making outside procurement "a nightmare,"
said one NSAer. With the ability to squeeze 1 million or more transistors
on a single piece of silicon, designers can now build entire algorithms on
a chip”a complete crypto system on a piece of material many times
smaller than a dime. For such a chip to fall into the wrong hands would
be disastrous.


497
So NSA added another new feature: a secret self-destruct mechanism.
Developed by Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Laboratories,
NSA's chips are shielded by special self-destructing coatings. "If a hostile
agent tries to take off the lid," said one knowledgeable source, "the
coating literally rips out the top [circuit] layer."
Six months after the 1988 computer science panel meeting, fear over
Japan's rapid push into the supercomputer industry once again
surfaced. On December 6, 1988, Japan's Fujitsu”a key supplier of
critical chips to Cray”announced a major new advance: a blisteringly
fast computer with a theoretical top speed of 4 billion operations per
second. This equaled and perhaps beat Cray's top-of-the-line machine,
the Y-MP, which had been on the market for less than a year. The
problem for NSA was that the Japanese company could easily sell the
superfast computer to other nations, which might then use it to develop
encryption systems far too fast for NSA's codebreaking computers to
conquer.
But while Japanese companies were catching up and maybe even
passing their American competitors in speed, the U.S. supercomputer
industry was far ahead in both software development and the use of
parallel processing. As fast as the Fujitsu computer was, it had only two
processors. Cray and ETA had both developed machines with eight
processors”eight brains, in a sense”which could simultaneously attack
separate parts of a problem.
To Seymour Cray, sixteen brains were better than eight, and for
several years he had been trying to prove it by building a sixteen-
processor CRAY-3. It was an expensive and time-consuming endeavor”
too much so, it turned out, for Cray Research, the company he had
founded but no longer owned. In May 1989, the two split. Seymour Cray
took 200 employees and $100 million and moved to Colorado Springs to
found Cray Computer, Inc., as a wholly owned subsidiary of Cray
Research. Eventually, it was planned, Cray Computer would become
independent.
Like a race-car driver with his foot stuck to the accelerator, Cray
continued to push for more and more speed; he hoped to break sixteen
billion operations a second. The secret would be to make the hundreds of
thousands of chips that would constitute the soul of the new computer
not out of conventional silicon but out of a radical new material: gallium
arsenide. Although it was more difficult and costly to work with,
electrons could travel up to ten times as fast through the new compound
as through silicon.
But as "the Hermit of Chippewa Falls," as Cray was affectionately
known, quietly pushed ahead in his new laboratory in Colorado Springs,
the world around him began shifting and turning. The Cold War had



498
ended and weapons designers were no longer shopping for
supercomputers. The fat Reagan years of Star Wars were giving way to
the Clinton era of cutbacks and deficit reduction. And industry was
turning away from the diamond-encrusted CRAYs, made of a small
number of superpowerful processors, and toward less pricey massively
parallel computers made up of thousands of inexpensive
microprocessors. The enormously expensive, hand-built Formula One
racers were being forced off the track by cheap stock cars packed with
store-bought superchargers and sixteen-barrel carburetors.
At ETA Systems, which had pushed the supercomputer speed
envelope with its ETA 10, 800 employees showed up for work on a spring
Monday in 1989 to find the doors locked shut. The company had
developed a super debt of $400 million.
Four years later, Steve Chen folded up his new company,
Supercomputer Systems, when IBM finally cut off funding for his SS-1.
Partly funded by NSA, Chen had spent half a decade attempting to build
a computer a hundred times faster than anything on earth. But in the
end, the innovations were overtaken by excessive costs and endless
missed deadlines. A few months after the company's doors closed, one of
its former engineers driving past a farm spotted a strange but familiar
column of metal. A closer look confirmed his worst fears: it was the outer
frame for the SS-1, and it had been sold for scrap.
In 1991, Thinking Machines Corporation delivered to NSA its first
massively parallel computer”the Connection Machine CM-5, which the
agency named Frostberg. Used until 1997, the futuristic black cube with
long panels of blinking red lights looked like something left over from a
Star Wars set. Just two years after the $25 million machine was
installed, NSA doubled its size by adding 256 additional processor units.
This allowed Frostberg to take a job and break it into 512 pieces and
work on each piece simultaneously, at 65.5 billion operations a second.
Equally impressive was the Frostberg's memory, capable of storing up to
500 billion words.
By the time the CRAY-3 at last made its debut in 1993”clocking in at
roughly 4 billion operations a second”there were no takers. Nearly out
of money, the company spent a year looking for customers and finally
landed a deal with its old partner, NSA. In August of 1994, the agency
awarded Cray $4.2 million to build a highly specialized version of the
CRAY-3 for signal processing and pattern recognition”in other words,
eavesdropping and codebreaking. Named the CRAY-3/Super Scalable
System, the machine would become the brain of what has been dubbed
"the world's ultimate spying machine." It would link two supercomputer
processors with a massively parallel array of chips containing more than
half a million inexpensive processors designed by NSA's Supercomputer
Research Center.


499
But while hoping for Cray to succeed, NSA scientists were also
working in-house on new ideas. One was a processor called Splash 2,
which, when attached to a general-purpose computing platform, was able
to accelerate the machine's performance to super-Cray levels at only a
fraction of the Cray cost.
As Seymour Cray struggled to complete his CRAY-3, he was also in a
race with his old parent company, Cray Research, which was building a
successor to its Y-MP called the C-90. The company was also near
completion on a powerhouse known as the T-90, which would operate at
up to 60 billion operations per second. Meanwhile, Seymour Cray hoped
to leapfrog his competitors once again with his CRAY-4, due out in 1996.
By the fall of 1994, work on the CRAY-4 was going surprisingly well.
Cray Computer in Colorado Springs was predicting a completion date in
early 1995 with a machine with twice the power of the CRAY-3 at one-
fifth the cost. There was even talk of a CRAY-5 and CRAY-6 before the
planned retirement of Seymour Cray. Which was why the yellow tape
came as such a shock. When employees came to work on the morning of
March 24, 1995, they were first confused to see the yellow police tape
sealing the doors. But when they saw the white flag that had been run
up the flagpole, they did not need a supercomputer to conclude that the

<<

. 87
( 118 .)



>>