Today, at a high-performance computing conference in Dresden, Germany, he plans to introduce his newest machine: a supercomputer to be named the Sun Constellation System that will compete for the title as the world’s fastest when installation is complete this year.
“It is hard to believe that 30 years later I am still working on the same problem,” said Mr. Bechtolsheim, who is better known as Andy.
Between the milestones, Mr. Bechtolsheim, who is 51 years old, has designed a parade of computers that have continued to squeeze the most processing power or storage capacity into the smallest possible space. And, despite becoming one of the richest people in the world, he remains obsessed with designing ever more powerful computers. His new machine, which is currently being installed at the Texas Advanced Computing Center in Austin, is the latest example of his trademark elegant and simple engineering. It is set apart from other supercomputers made from tens of thousands of networked microprocessor chips by Mr. Bechtolsheim’s ability to orchestrate the range of computing disciplines that are needed to create the fastest computers.
As such, he is the leading candidate to inherit the mantle of Seymour Cray, a famous computer designer who consistently designed the world’s fastest computers from the 1960s until his death in a car accident in 1996. “He is this amazing blend of artist and engineer and that reminds me of Seymour,” said Larry Smarr, an astrophysicist and supercomputer user, who was an early customer of Sun Microsystems’ computers as director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications during the 1980s.
Mr. Bechtolsheim’s 18-hour-a-day dedication to computer design is all the more remarkable because of his wealth. He has founded three successful companies in addition to being one of Google’s first financial backers. The initial $100,000 check he wrote to the Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page is an investment now worth more than $1.5 billion.
None of that great wealth is apparent in the man who sits in a windowless conference room talking about supercomputing switching fabrics at a rapid-fire pace with his eyes closed and with one hand pressed against his face in concentration. A reporter who first interviewed Mr. Bechtolsheim in 1981 while he was still at Stanford, discovered last week that the computer scientist was still clad in Birkenstock sandals and still dressed like a graduate student.
Ola Torudbakken, a Sun engineer who worked for Mr. Bechtolsheim on the Texas supercomputer from his home in Norway, said it was routine to begin exchanging e-mail messages with Sun’s chief architect when it was 5 a.m. in California, then complete their conversations as late as midnight West Coast time when he was starting the next day’s work in Europe.Since returning to Sun in 2004, Mr. Bechtolsheim has been appearing in technical settings, speaking about the problems impeding progress in the design of the fastest supercomputers. As supercomputers have shifted from custom processors to machines made from tens of thousands of off-the-shelf microprocessors, the design challenge has become how to permit the processors to share data needed to answer ever more complex scientific and engineering problems. Mr. Bechtolsheim has been critical of some of the biggest machines that have had high performance claims, but have performed poorly in real world applications.
Mr. Bechtolsheim thought he had found a solution to that problem by modifying an industry standard data switch, making it possible for any of the 13,000-plus Advanced Micro Devices Barcelona microprocessors to communicate with each other more than 10 times as fast as with existing switches.
Like Steve Wozniak, another Silicon Valley computer design luminary, Mr. Bechtolsheim became immersed in the world of computing in high school. According to John Fowler, the executive who runs Sun’s systems business, Mr. Bechtolsheim took a job in a machine shop while in high school in rural Germany. His boss asked him if he could build a system to make it possible to program an advanced milling machine. Mr. Bechtolsheim, constructed a computer and an operating system from scratch to control the machine. He then struck a licensing deal for his system which proved so successful that by the time he graduated from high school he was earning more than his father.
That led him to believe that studying computer science might be a worthy goal, Mr. Fowler said.
Before transferring to Stanford as a graduate student, Mr. Bechtolsheim attended graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University in 1976 where he joined an early project to build a cluster-based supercomputer. Mr. Bechtolsheim literally filed down plastic computer chip packages in order to make them small enough to squeeze into the design of an early system board, recalled Brian Reid, who was a graduate student with him at Carnegie Mellon.
People who know him well say that that persistence underscores his determination as a designer.
Mr. Bechtolsheim’s newest machine will ultimately be tested against his most powerful rival, I.B.M., in the $10 billion market for high-performance computers. I.B.M., based in Armonk, N.Y., now dominates the high end of the fastest computing ranks and expects to maintain that position when the newest Top500 supercomputer rankings are announced today in Dresden.
Indeed, I.B.M. will introduce a redesigned version of its BlueGene supercomputer, to be named BlueGene/P today at the conference, saying that the new machine, scheduled to be installed next year, will finally break the petaflop computing barrier — the ability to execute a thousand trillion mathematical operations a second.
Executives at I.B.M. are skeptical about the new Sun supercomputer, noting that the system is late to be installed. “Having done six generations of machines,” said Dave Turek, the company’s vice president of Deep Computing. “I have come to realize that very little goes right the first time.”
A number of Silicon Valley technologists are, however, betting on Mr. Bechtolsheim. “He’s a perfectionist,” said Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, who worked with Mr. Bechtolsheim beginning in 1983 at Sun. “He works 18 hours a day and he’s very disciplined. Every computer he has built has been the fastest of its generation.”