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New supercomputers overhaul top ranks

Stays at the top of supercomputer hill are becoming increasingly short-lived, as five of the top 10 systems are new to the list. Photos: The fastest supercomputer

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Building one of the world's 10 fastest supercomputers takes a lot of work, but the prestige is increasingly likely to be short-lived.

In the latest list of the 500 fastest supercomputers, released Wednesday at the International Supercomputing Conference in Heidelberg, Germany, five of the top 10 systems are new to the list. IBM dominates that top echelon: It built six of them, five using the Blue Gene design that packs 1,024 processors into each six-foot tall cabinet.

The Top500 list is updated twice yearly by researchers at the University of Mannheim, the University of Tennessee and the U.S. Energy Department's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It ranks computers by how many trillions of calculations per second, or teraflops, they can perform using algebraic calculations in a test called Linpack.

Booming performance
Supercomputers are used for tasks such as automotive design and pharmaceutical research, but developments in the market often can influence mainstream machines as well. High-ranked systems increasingly are clusters of hundreds or thousands of low-end machines rather than single powerful behemoths.

Turnover on the list is rampant. The slowest machine today is about as fast as the collective performance of the first Top500 list in June 1993. The November 1998 list had one system faster than 1 teraflops, but now all 500 exceed that mark. And the top performer, IBM's 65,636-processor Blue Gene/L at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is faster than the collective performance of the entire list of November 2001.

IBM bumped the Blue Gene/L performance from its March milestone of 135.5 teraflops to 136.8 teraflops. And Big Blue expects to maintain its top rank on the next version of the list in November as the Livermore Blue Gene system is again doubled in size.

"Our expectation is that it will benchmark in the 270 to 280 teraflops range," said Dave Turek, vice president of deep computing at IBM.

A similar but smaller system, Watson Blue Gene (BGW), arrived to take second place with 91.3 teraflops. There are 16 Blue Gene machines total on the list.

Blue Gene systems cost about $2 million per rack, but IBM sells partial racks as well, Turek said. The company is working on a separate Blue Gene design code-named Cyclops that's geared for life sciences work, but Turek said, "We have no plans to do anything with respect to commercialization of Cyclops."

IBM built more than half the systems on the list--increasing from 216 systems on the last list to 259 on the current list. "IBM remains the clear leader in the Top500 list and increased its lead," organizers said in a statement.

Some of IBM's gains were at Hewlett-Packard's expense. HP dropped from 173 systems to 131. But in the broader high-performance computing market--not just the rarefied Top500 domain--HP leads Big Blue.

According to market researcher IDC, HP held 34 percent of the $1.9 billion market in the first quarter of 2005, ahead of IBM's 28.2 percent, Sun Microsystems' $12.3 percent, Dell's 11.9 percent and SGI's 2.6 percent.

Chipmaker Intel also reached a milestone on the list. For the first time, more than half the systems--254 in total--use its Xeon processor. However, use of the higher-end Itanium processor diminished from 84 in the last list to 79.

Intel's top rival, Advanced Micro Devices, built the Opteron processors used in the No. 10 system, a new machine called Red Storm built by Cray for Sandia National Laboratories. It was clocked at 15.2 teraflops, but a Sandia spokesman said the full system isn't expected to be running until sometime before October. Cray and Sandia predicted performance of 100 teraflops a year ago.


Correction: This story included an incorrect number for Itanium-based machines on the newest list of the 500 fastest supercomputers. There are 79 such systems on the list.