A Chip Off the Old Block

At engineering schools across the country, a few select college undergrads study the key to the modern world: computer chips. Paul Lappas, a senior at the University of Virginia, is one of them.

By Alex Clover

Chips: they're everywhere, hidden from view, making it all look simple, easy, useful. If getting to grips with the latest computer software seems bad enough, try designing the chip the runs it! "It's really not that complicated," says Paul Lappas. He's kidding, right? Yes and no. Paul, showing a lot of patience, takes us on a guided tour of cyber-world.

Paul Lappas, 21, is an electrical engineering student at the University of Virginia. He made the Charlottesville campus his home more than three years ago. "I'd always liked technology: it fascinates me. Why not study what makes today's technology possible?" What does make it possible? At the most basic level, it's usually a computer chip.

Lappas is one of only three students at the University of Virginia working on an experimental computer chip. If you've ever seen the inside of a computer, you'll have noticed that the chips themselves are tiny. So is Lappas's, and it's not unlike the chip in the computer you have in your home or office.

Ever been to a public computer lab? If not, do you have a modem? Either way, chances are you've logged on to a server of some sort. What is a server? It's a kind of mega-computer that can perform several tasks at one time. A server can send and recieve information to and from many computers simultaneously. It's like having ten different phone lines rather than one loud phone line with twenty people talking at the same time. In order to perform several tasks at once, the computer has several parallel processors, each processor dealing with a different task. When your modem dials the Internet, it's actually dialing your provider's server, and the speed of the server, and the number of parallel processors it has, determine the speed and reliability with which you send an email or browse the Web. A regular PC has only one processor, but servers can have dozens of them. The largest server in the world is the Kray super-computer, with more than 70 processors working--that means it can do the work of 70 regular desktop computers in about 2% of the time.

"When I was a kid, the kind of movies they'd show were all about computers--remember War Games, with Matthew Broderick? I loved the 'Whopper!'" For those of you who haven't seen 'War Games," the Whopper is the US army's mega-computer. Guess what? "It had parallel processors," says Lappas with a grin.

Paul Lappas was born in Greece, but spent most of his life growing up in Hanover, New Jersey. "Yeah, I go and see my parents four or five times a year." Lappa's Jersey accent shines through as he speaks. He laughs. "I can't help it if I laugh like a girl; all Jersey guys do after a few drinks." And, apparently, he drinks quite a bit. "You work hard, you party hard--that's the way it is over here." According to Lappas, that's the philosophy that infects University of Virginia students from day one.

Back at the lab, Lappas is running a chip development program on his computer. He's using the program to design his own parallel processor. If Lappas had to design the chip on paper, chances are the first couple of prototypes of his chip wouldn't work. But by using the computer program instead, he can test whether the chip would work or not with a simple click of his computer's mouse. With a working design, Lappas can mail a copy of the chip's blueprint to a chip manufacturer, and they will mail him back a physical chip that he can actually play with.

Lappas stands to make more than $40,000 a year when he graduates. "But I'm thinking of going to grad school in New York after a couple of years of work." Why bother? "I want to get an MBA." The strength of a business can be pushed to the limit with the latest computer technology. Faster chips will only make technology's economic power stronger. If Lappas does get an MBA, he stands to reap the benefits of both.

The technology that Paul Lappas is using today could well be in our homes tomorrow. Maybe he'll discover something revolutionary during his research. Paul wants to be at the helm of this type of research and development. "I've got to...it's what I want." And it looks like he's going to get it.

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