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IBM supercomputer named fastest

Big Blue has brought the title of the world's fastest supercomputer back to the United States for the first time in three years.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Big Blue has brought the title of the world’s fastest supercomputer back to the United States for the first time in three years.

International Business Machine Corp.’s still incomplete Blue Gene/L system was officially named the fastest in the world Monday by the Top500 project, an independent group of university computer scientists who release supercomputer rankings every six months.

The system was clocked at 70.72 trillion calculations per second, almost double the performance of the reigning leader — Japan’s Earth Simulator, which can sustain 35.86 trillion calculations a second.

Erich Strohmaier, one of the co-founders of the list, said that when the Earth Simulator appeared 2½ years ago, it was more than 4½ times speedier than the next-fastest machine and held on while the entire top 10 was replaced.

“It is going up in steps. The step that the Earth Simulator made was big. The Blue Gene is going to be ahead of the curve for the next couple of years,” Strohmaier said. “Next year with the final Blue Gene, four times what it is this year, it is going to be a real step up and will be hard to beat.”

Blue Gene/L will be installed next year at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where it will be used to study the nation’s nuclear stockpile and perform other research. Currently, it’s just a quarter of its planned size of 360 trillion calculations a second.

IBM officials downplayed a U.S. manufacturer regaining the top spot.

“IBM has dominated the top of supercomputing for a number of years, having reclaimed the No. 1 spot in the world is not that significant,” said Dave Turek, IBM’s vice president of deep computing. Instead, he pointed to its relatively low energy consumption and small size.

Energy efficient design touted
Blue Gene/L will consume about $1 million a year in electricity. If the Earth Simulator were as powerful, it would consume $60 million each year for electricity, Turek said.

The IBM system also will take up just 2,500 square feet, compared with 34,000 square feet for Earth Simulator.

“This machine is designed for a very, very small physical footprint and an energy efficient design,” Turek said.

Besides IBM’s Blue Gene/L taking the top spot, another U.S. supercomputer at NASA’s Ames Research Center grabbed No. 2 in the world, turning 51.87 trillion calculations a second, or teraflops.

Tokyo-based NEC, which built the Japanese supercomputer, welcomes the competition from U.S. manufacturers after topping the list, said Dennis Lam with Houston-based NEC Solutions America. Earth Simulator is now third.

“If you talk about building a real-life system, I think NEC has proven that they can make a system as good as anyone’s,” Lam said. “Definitely, NEC has the technology to do so again if we choose to.”

Though the United States previously had nine of the 10 fastest computers in the world, the Japanese supercomputer on the top of the list has been a sore spot for U.S. officials, federal research labs and universities.

Monday’s announcement ends a race between IBM and the Department of Energy and system-builder Silicon Graphics Inc., chipmaker Intel Corp. and NASA for bragging rights.

In September, IBM announced that a prototype of the Blue Gene/L in Rochester, Minn., had sustained speeds of 36 trillion calculations per second. A month later, Project Columbia’s builders announced that the $50 million computer achieved 42.7 trillion calculations per second using just four-fifths of its processors.

Both machines marked a shift for supercomputing architecture and technology.

Both Blue Gene/L, which will use 130,000 processors, and the NASA computer, which uses 10,240 processors, were less expensive and used processors very similar to those commercially available. The cost of IBM’s machine is estimated at $100 million, while the NASA computer cost $50 million, compared to at least $250 million for Earth Simulator and its specialty chips.