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IBM revs supercomputer in rankings race

Blue Gene/L performance likely to far outpace NEC's Earth Simulator in contest of high-powered machines, News.com has learned. Photos: SGI's rival Columbia supercomputer

The U.S. Department of Energy plans to unveil test results on Thursday that will likely place IBM's Blue Gene/L as the fastest supercomputer in the world, CNET News.com has learned.

The agency plans to announce that Blue Gene/L performed more than 70 trillion calculations per second, or 70 teraflops, sources familiar with the test said. The speed measurement took place at an IBM lab in Rochester, Minn., where the system is being kept before its move to the agency's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California next year.

The results are set to be revealed just days before the scheduled Nov. 8 release of the Top500 list, which ranks the fastest supercomputers in the world. Officials in the United States government have chafed sometimes at the fact that a Japanese machine, NEC's Earth Simulator, has topped the 500 list since June 2002, with a speed of 35.9 teraflops.

Unless other contenders emerge, the performance is likely to put Blue Gene/L at the head of that list. IBM declined to comment for this story. A representative of the Livermore lab confirmed an announcement is scheduled for Thursday, but declined to comment on details.

The speed race is more than an exercise in boasting and national pride. Energy Secretary Spenser Abraham this year said cutting-edge supercomputing is required for the United States to maintain its scientific preeminence.

The Blue Gene/L performance handily surpasses a record announced last week by Silicon Graphics, which said its Columbia supercomputer, built for NASA, clocked a speed of 42.7 teraflops. Another test of a full configuration of the system came in at 51.9 teraflops, though the results of that test weren't announced to the public.

That performance means Columbia is likely to take second place in the Top500 rankings. As for practical benefits, NASA's machine is expected to increase the accuracy of five-day weather forecasts from 78 percent to 90 percent, while improving detail and delivering results sooner, said Ghassem Asrar, a NASA mission director who oversees scientific research on Columbia.

Despite the interest in the Top500 list, its organizers and others recognize that its foundation, a speed test called Linpack, is a convenient but incomplete performance measurement. Supercomputer owners submit results of performance tests to the organization, which publishes the list twice each year.

Blue Gene/L isn't the only IBM system arriving high on the Top500. Big Blue has submitted a result for a system at the University of Barcelona in Spain, which was measured at 20.5 teraflops, according to sources familiar with the list. That system is a 3,564-processor cluster of JS20 blade servers, which are thin servers that use IBM's 2.2GHz PowerPC970 processors.

Hewlett-Packard leads the high-performance technical computing market, but IBM is gaining ground. Other contenders include specialists such as Cray and SGI.