IBM reclaims top supercomputer crown for U.S.

BlueGene/L with 16,000 processors named the most powerful supercomputer in the world

For the first time since 2002, Japan's Earth Simulator is not the most powerful supercomputer on the planet.

IBM Corp. has assembled a 16,000-processor version of its BlueGene/L supercomputer, which on Sept. 16 edged out the Earth simulator, built by IBM rival NEC Corp., according to benchmarks run by Big Blue.

"This is a kind of seminal announcement for us," said Dave Turek, vice president of deep computing at IBM. "Their reign as the most powerful supercomputer in the world has come to an end."

Running the Linpack benchmark, which is used to evaluate supercomputing power during the biannual Top500 list of supercomputers, BlueGene was able to achieve a sustained performance of 36.01 teraflops (a teraflop is a trillion calculations per second). On the June version Top500 list, the Earth Simulator was benchmarked at 35.86 teraflops.

Assembled at IBM facilities in Rochester, Minnesota, the Blue Gene system is an 8-rack prototype of the $100 million system IBM plans to deliver to Lawrence Livermore National Labs in the early part of 2005. The Lawrence Livermore supercomputer, however, will be a 64-rack 130,000 processor system that will dwarf the Rochester system with an estimated peak performance of 360 teraflops, according to Turek.

Its long reign as maker of the world's most powerful supercomputer has been a point of pride for Japan's NEC, which was effectively shut out of the U.S. market at one point by a 454 percent duty on its machines.

Built in 2002 to model climate change simulations for the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, the Earth Simulator took five years to construct and cost ¥50 billion ($450 million). It consists of 5,120 processors housed in 64 cabinets in the center of a 50-meter-by-64-meter room.

The eight-rack Blue Gene system will take up only about 30 square meters (320 square feet) and consumes 216 kilowatts, only a fraction of the 6,000 kilowatts required by the Earth Simulator, Turek said.

IBM's benchmark results are big news, for the U.S. as well as IBM, said Horst Simon, associate laboratory director of computing sciences at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a maintainer of the Top500 list. "Winning back the number one spot by a U.S. vendor with U.S. technology and for a U.S. site is an important change politically," he said in an e-mail interview.

IBM intends to produce a number of systems using the Blue Gene components, Turek said, including systems for Argonne National Laboratory, the Dutch astronomical organization ASTRON, and The Computational Biology Research Center (CBRC) of Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology.

Whether or not Blue Gene will be number one on the next official Top500 ranking in November remains to be seen, however.

IBM is working with customers on a number of systems that could potentially perform in the 40 teraflop range, Turek said. "There are activities in our part that would get us in that range and I can only assume that our competitors are doing the same," he said.

NASA Ames's Project Columbia, a 10,240-processor supercomputer being built by Silicon Graphics Inc. could very well be such a contender, Simon said.

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