hen NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland began its Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) project in 1989, scientists typically relied on several hardware platforms for their computing needs. A mainframe crunched numbers obtained from satellite readings every half-second at more than a billion data points. Information was shared among researchers via a network of dummy terminals. Macintosh computers were used for scientific plotting and other graphics applications while word processing and general administrative duties were handled on personal computers.
"It was a crude and clunky automated system but we were limited by available technology," says Gary Hinshaw, principal scientist with Hughes STX Corp. and a member of NASA's COBE team of researchers. "At that stage, no one machine could manage everything." The team measures the universe's microwave radiation in an attempt to discover more about how the galaxies were formed.
Goddard recently consolidated most of its computing power into a network of 64-bit workstations based on a RISC (reduced instruction set computing) architecture. The Alpha machines, manufactured by Digital Equipment Corp., contain central processing units (CPUs) that can rapidly process small sets of computer instructions. Now each scientist can simultaneously process eight bytes of information on a single desktop unit.
"I can do elaborate statistical simulations and analyze the results with sophisticated graphics tools while at the same time running Internet applications and e-mail," says Hinshaw, glancing at the nine windows open on his computer screen. "I never could have envisioned the type of tasks we're doing today with the kind of machines that were available at the outset of this project."
Many of the federal government's scientists and engineers are having similar reactions to the rapid advances being made in desktop computing. Technical workstations that used to be reserved for high-end applications such as database modeling and three-dimensional scientific visualization now act as network servers and Internet hosts. These "personal workstations" also perform more mundane tasks traditionally done by PCs, such as word processing and spreadsheets.
Conversely, high-end PCs are handling challenging imaging projects and other applications once done exclusively by workstations. The merging of these desktop technologies not only helps close the gap between PCs and workstations, but creates an unprecedented functionality that is boosting productivity.
Never before has so much speed and storage capacity been available for so little money. Part of the reason is that manufacturers of semiconductor chips-the brains of computers-have been doubling processing power about every two years. Industry experts estimate that by 2000 some desktop machines will be as robust as today's supercomputers.
Dynamic random access memory costs have dropped to about $6 per megabyte, compared to more than $30 per megabyte just a year ago. That price decrease has prompted both PC and workstation manufacturers to increase memory in machines, which has provided government users with more storage capacity than they ever anticipated.
"Our computing memory has grown one-and-a-half orders of magnitude in four years," says Hinshaw. "And our follow-on project to COBE-the Microwave Anisotropy Probe-will have a thousand times the volume, yet cost half as much. We're definitely getting more bang for the buck."
Embracing 64-bit Computing
About 160,000 workstations were sold to government users last year, according to market researcher Federal Sources Inc. in McLean, Va. Most were used for high-end applications involving science, engineering, logistics, intelligence, and command and control. Roughly half of all federal workstations are made by Sun Microsystems. Other leading manufacturers include Digital, IBM, Intergraph, Hewlett-Packard and Silicon Graphics. Some of the larger contract vehicles are the Army's Workstations I, the Air Force's Workstations and Desktop V awards, the Navy's Tactical Advanced Computer 4 and Supermini contracts and NASA's Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement.
Video- and graphics-intensive applications such as telemedicine, computer-aided design and geographical information systems have created more demand for 64-bit chip architectures. Although twice as expensive as their 32-bit predecessors, 64-bit machines provide significant performance improvements-especially for computer-intensive functions such as data warehousing and World Wide Web searches.
In 1992, Digital became the first workstation manufacturer to offer 64-bit machines. Since then, most vendors have either released their own 64-bit models or have plans on the drawing board.
The majority of federal workstations run on Unix-an open operating system that enables dissimilar computers to exchange information and run on each other's software. Unix is powerful enough to handle several tasks at once, making it ideal for multimedia applications or any jobs involving multiple business processes.
Microsoft's 3-year-old Windows NT operating system has started to challenge the Unix operating system in the workstation and server markets. The multi-tasking system is significantly easier to configure and use than Unix. NT supports machines running Intel or RISC chips, such as PowerPC from Apple/IBM/Motorola, Alpha from Digital and MIPS from Silicon Graphics.
The problem with Windows NT is a dearth of software applications-about 1,500 compared to more than 10,000 for Unix. While PC users graduating to workstations may prefer the user-friendliness of Windows NT, those running sophisticated applications probably will want to use Unix. Some companies such as Digital offer workstations that run both operating systems.
Government users not ready to upgrade to workstations are opting for high-end personal computers instead. Federal demand has never been greater for PCs, partly because the Air Force's massive Desktop IV procurement-open to both Defense and civilian agencies-exhausted its limit of 300,000 machines almost a year before its expiration date. The follow-on Desktop V contract is expected to satisfy some of the pent-up demand.
Nearly 500,000 PCs were supplied to the federal market last year, mainly from leading vendors such as Compaq, Dell, IBM, Gateway 2000, Micronics and Zenith Data Systems. The market was primarily fueled by the closing of federal data centers and the subsequent migration to client-server networks. The popularity of data warehouses and Internet applications also boosted demand.
Personal computers have come a long way since their introduction almost 15 years ago. Pentium and Pentium Pro processor chips have made machines faster than many early workstation models. Some new units are offering as much as 50 percent more disk storage space and twice the power of last year's PCs.
And designs are significantly more flexible. Many models now feature user-friendly casings that enable motherboards to slide out so that users can quickly upgrade processor chips and memory. Everex Systems even offers a compact, all-in-one CPU/monitor unit for offices with little room to spare.
Technological advances have helped to cut PC prices to record levels, with many models in the $1,000 range. Prices may drop even lower as competition increases and manufacturers try to eliminate bloated chip inventories.
Industry analysts are predicting that the $500 PC is not too far away. That scaled-down unit will be a type of Internet appliance that attaches to high-speed networks linked to centralized computers where processing will take place. Although this "network computer" will not contain a floppy-disk drive or other common PC features, it will be capable of doing rudimentary functions such as accessing Web pages, e-mail and other applications downloaded from the network.
A variety of companies-including Hewlett-Packard, IBM, NEC, Oracle and Sun-have announced plans to release Net PCs later this year. The jury is still out as to whether this new network-centric device will provide any competition to PCs and workstations on the desktop.