U.S. pads lead in global supercomputing ranking

Panicky U.S. officials can calm down; the country's lead in supercomputers remains strong and is growing. Photos: Supercomputers at SC05

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
5 min read
Two and a half years ago, federal officials were alarmed about U.S. competitiveness in supercomputers, which can model global weather, molecular interaction or simulate nuclear explosions, among other things.

But it appears their concerns might have been exaggerated.

In the new Top500 list of supercomputers, 305 of the machines on the list are installed in the U.S., up from 277 six months ago. The number of machines installed in Europe, China and Japan, meanwhile, dipped. Thirty four of the top 35 come from U.S. manufacturers or universities while 479 of the computers have a North American pedigree.

Supercomputers at SC05

IBM remained the dominant company in supercomputers. Big Blue accounted for five out of the top 10 supercomputers in the semiannual Top500 ranking, including the top three computers on the list. Overall, Big Blue accounted for 43.8 percent of the machines on the list, more than any other manufacturer or university.

The company's BlueGene/L, which knocked NEC's Earth Simulator from its top spot in November 2004, remained the top-ranked supercomputer in the world for the third time in a row. Installed in Lawrence Livermore National Labs, the computer has doubled in size in the past six months and now contains 131,076 processors. It will continue to grow.

"The limit is less of an issue of architectural characteristics than....what the customers are looking for," said Dave Turek, vice president of Deep Computing at IBM.

BlueGene/L can now churn 280.6 teraflops, or nearly 281 trillion calculations a second and is the only computer to exceed 100 teraflops.

"This system is expected to remain the number one supercomputer in the world for the next few editions of the Top500 list," wrote the Top500 organization in an outline of the list.

Other U.S.-based companies fared well too. Hewlett-Packard accounted for 33.8 percent of the computers, rebounding to 169 from a dip of 131 computers in June. Dell landed in the top 10 with the fifth-ranked "Thunderbird," an 8,000-processor supercomputer installed at Sandia National Laboratories.

Intel microprocessors were found in 333, or two-thirds, of the machines on the list. The number of supercomputers sporting Intel Itanium chips dropped drastically. Growth, however, was seen in those carrying 64-bit Intel Xeons or Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices.

The list, which will be released formally at the SC05 Supercomputing Conference in Seattle on Monday, ranks computers by how they perform on a benchmark, called Linpack. Linpack emphasizes how rapidly a computer performs a dense battery of floating point or decimal calculations.

The test doesn't completely examine performance, but it does provide a functional gauge for ranking supercomputers. Still, officials want to come up with different ways to rank these machines.

Companies and nations fiercely compete for rankings. For two and a half years, the now seventh-ranked Earth Simulator, which occupies a three-story building, sat atop the list. Worried about national competitiveness, U.S. federal officials began to push manufacturers to built even better custom machines.

IBM and others, meanwhile, said that supercomputers needed to be made from components that could be standardized for commercial use. IBM largely won the debate. The technology behind BlueGene/L, while exotic now, will trickle down to commercial systems, Turek said.

The computer was also designed to economize on space and energy. In all, BlueGene/L fits into 64 computer racks, which can fit into a standard-size computer room in a large corporation. It also consumes around 1.5 to 1.7 megawatts, Turek added.

"That's still a lot of watts, but if you constructed a Linux cluster to provide (about) the same performance, you might be in the twenty megawatt range," Turek said. "Because we take a building block approach, the way we look at it is, if you build something for 64 racks, you ought to be able to sell someone a half rack."

Although the federal government has been more supportive of supercomputing research in the past few years, BlueGene/L actually kicked off in December 1999. Initially, it was a research project, but as time went on, IBM began to design the machine with commercialization in mind.

Turek recalled the mid-'90s, when he told designers on the project, "I don't know where the future is going to be, but how about we run Linux on this so we can run applications on it."

Other facts and trends from the list:

• The list remains incredibly fluid. Four of the top 10 systems were displaced by completely new computers, while 221 computers from the list that came out in June are now too small to include on the list.

• The rapid turnover is partly the result of clustering servers to build a supercomputer. In the past, many supercomputers were designed as an organic whole. Clusters now account for 72 percent of the machines on the list, although the clusters become more prevalent as the list descends. In June, clusters accounted for just 61 percent.

• In terms of processors, what's popular in servers also works in supercomputers. Intel 32-bit x86 processors, the same architecture behind most Xeon servers and Pentium 4 desktops, powered 206 of the systems. The second most popular chip architecture was the 64-bit version of Intel x86 processors, found in 81 of the machines. The combined types of Power chips animate in 81 computers.

• Opteron is eating Itanium. Fifty five of the computers on the list sported an AMD Opteron chip, up from 25 in June. Intel's Itanium powered only 46 of the systems, down from 79 in the June ranking.

• Industry remains the big consumer of supercomputers. Commercial organizations own 266 on the list while 121 are in research labs and 70 toil in academia.

• Gigabit Ethernet is the most popular way to connect chips inside these beasts: 249 computers on the list use it. Myrinet is found in 101 of the systems.

• Apple Computer has one computer on the list: a 448-processor machine at Maryland's Bowie State University. It clocks in at No. 308. There are three others on the list, however, that are considered "self-made" by the organization that consist of Apple servers.