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IBM, HP dominate world's fastest supercomputers

Posted: 27 Jun 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:supercomputer? processor?

IBM's Blue Gene/L supercomputer, installed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, captured the number one position in the latest iteration of the Top 500 list of the world's fastest machines, released Wednesday at the 2005 International Supercomputing Conference in Heidelberg, Germany.

"It's interesting to note that that machine is the biggest by a wide margin, and that margin is going to grow," said Jack Dongarra, a computer science professor at the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville, Tenn., who helped compile the list. "The Blue Gene/L right now has 64,000 processors and it's going to grow to 130,000 processors. That's a staggering number. By November, they may have the full machine assembled and it'll have double the performance that has today."

Running the Linpac benchmarks, Blue Gene/L, which uses IBM's PowerPC processors, topped the list by achieving a performance figure of 136.8 teraflops, or trillions of floating-point operations per second. A smaller, sister Blue Gene system installed at IBM's Thomas J.Watson Research Center in Yorktown, N.Y. placed second, running at 91.2 teraflops. Silicon Graphics Inc. took the third position for a 51.8 teraflops machine built around Intel's Itanium 2 processor.

Machines from Japan, which a decade ago had been seen as a major threat to the U.S. supercomputing industry, didn't fare as well. The highest finisher was NEC Inc., with its "Earth Simulator" supercomputer, which came in fourth.

"The United States versus Japan, in terms of systems, it's no contest," said Dongarra. "The U.S. has 294 machines in the top 500 and Japan has 23 machines."

Dongarra added that reports periodically surface that the Japanese government is funding the development of a so-called petaflops system, which would outperform existing supercomputers by an order of magnitude, however the reliability of that information is unknown.

Indeed, the most prevalent names on the list are two most familiar U.S. computer vendors."IBM is the clear leader; they have 294 of the 500 systems," said Dongarra. "Hewlett-Packard is the number two. Together, they represent the bulk of the systems." IBM accounted for some 58 percent of the computers on the list; HP appeared in roughly one quarter of the slots.

"Silicon Graphics has five percent. No other manufacturer captures more than five percent," Dongarra said. Cray Inc., which was a perennial leader in the 1980s and 1980s, appears in tenth place, with its 15.3 teraflops "Red Storm" system, installed at Sandia National Laboratories.

Moving forward, the list of Top 500 supercomputers, which is released semi-annually, is expected to adjust to emerging trends such as 64-bit and processors. (Several versions of IBM's Power architecture already boast dual-core implementations. However, processors from Intel and AMD have just recently moved to dual-core.) "The trend is clearly 64 bits, although having said that, the Blue Gene is a 32-bit architecture," Dongarra noted. "There are limitations as a result of that: the memory that can be addressed on these machines, per processor, is quite limited."

As the biggest machines in the supercomputer world push towards 100,000 processors, and as the research problems the systems are applied to become more ambitious, additional challenges are emerging, according to Dongarra.

"We face are problems related to programming languages," Dongarra explained. "Right now, we're using a programming model that's 20 or 30 years old. We're using message-passing on these systems, and that leads to many complications, from the standpoint of expressing algorithms and trying to understand what a program is doing. What's needed is a change in how we express our algorithms."

Some options are emerging in the form of innovative new programming languages, such as one called universal parallel C.

Along with Dongarra, the Top 500 list was compiled by Hans Meuer of the University of Mannheim, Germany, and Erich Strohmaier and Horst Simon of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

- Alexander Wolfe

TechWeb News

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