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IBM set to take supercomputing crown

A new incarnation of Blue Gene/L can perform 70.7 trillion calculations per second, Big Blue says. Photos: IBM's Blue Gene/L

IBM's Blue Gene/L became the top contender to the supercomputing throne Thursday, when Big Blue announced that a new incarnation of the machine can perform 70.7 trillion calculations per second.

The speed of 70.7 teraflops, as expected, puts Blue Gene/L well ahead of the 42.7 teraflops Silicon Graphics Inc. announced in October for its Columbia system, as well as the 51.9 teraflops that the full Columbia configuration is expected to be able to reach. The companies are vying for the top spot in a list of the world's 500 fastest supercomputers. The list will be updated Monday.

In addition, the new speed definitively bested a Japanese system, NEC's Earth Simulator, that has led the Top500 list for two years. The Blue Gene/L lead could increase when the system quadruples in size from its current configuration with 16 racks and more than 16,000 dual-core processors. The improvement will be made by May, IBM says.

The U.S. Energy Department, which is paying for the machine through its Advanced Simulation and Computing program, said the system will boost research in the United States.

"The delivery of the first quarter of the BlueGene/L system to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory this month shows how a partnership between government and industry can effectively advance national agendas in science, technology, security and industrial competitiveness,? Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said in a statement.

Livermore will use the system for materials science simulations, said Lynn Kissel, deputy director of the lab's Advanced Simulation and Computing program. Compared with current technology, Blue Gene/L will make simulations possible with roughly 1,000 times as many atoms--enough that the simulations can be compared with real-world experiments.

The list to be revealed Monday represents one of the twice-yearly updates to the Top500 list; the new list will be unveiled at the SC2004 show in Pittsburgh. The long domination of the NEC machine had raised some concerns among government officials that the United States was losing its supercomputing edge. IBM tried to allay those concerns when an earlier incarnation of Blue Gene/L edged past Earth Simulator in September.

Blue Gene/L currently is running at an IBM lab in Rochester, Minn., but the 16 racks will be delivered to Livermore this month, said Tilak Agerwala, vice president of systems for IBM Research.

Supercomputers are ranked according to a speed test called Linpack, a convenient but incomplete reflection of true performance. The benchmark reflects the performance of roughly a quarter of the codes the Livermore lab plans to run on the Blue Gene/L, Kissel said.

"Everyone agrees Linpack is not the right metric, but no one agrees what the right metric is," he said.

The full Blue Gene/L is expected to have a theoretical top speed of 360 teraflops, though the Top500 is based on the more realistic measurement of sustained performance. Agerwala said the full system likely will have efficiency in the same neighborhood as the current model, a prediction that could rate the full system at about 270 teraflops.

The trajectory of improvements is highlighted by the name of the Livermore lab building housing its newest computers. The Terascale Computing Facility--whose name refers to the once-grand achievement of a 1-teraflop supercomputer--is likely to be obsolete soon.

"Just a few years ago, obtaining a terascale computing level was a dream. Within just a few short years, we've blown past terascale and headed toward petascale," or a quadrillion calculations per second, Kissel said. "It's a remarkable time to be in computing."

Blue Gene/L isn't expected to be the end of the Livermore-IBM collaboration. "We've been saying we are viewing Blue Gene/L as a point on an affordable path to petaflop computing," Kissel said.

Rival SGI was quick to take jabs at the IBM announcement, noting that Blue Gene/L hasn't yet been delivered and that Columbia is already installed and doing production work for NASA's Ames Research Center. "While the Top500 list is well recognized...delivering the highest-quality customer results, as quickly as possible, that's more important," SGI Chief Executive Bob Bishop said in a statement.

Bishop also confirmed that Columbia has shown a speed of more than 50 teraflops.

Columbia currently uses about 2 megawatts of power, however, which is more than the 1.5 megawatts expected for the full Blue Gene/L.

Power doesn't come cheap: Including expenses such as air conditioning, each megawatt of power consumed costs Livermore about $1 million per year, Kissel said.