IBM gives glimpse of Blue Gene performance

Big Blue talks up its exotic Blue Gene/L supercomputer, the first module of which is a relatively small, dishwasher-size machine that can perform 1.4 trillion calculations per second.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
IBM on Friday talked up its Blue Gene/L supercomputer, the first module of which is a relatively small, dishwasher-size machine that can perform 1.4 trillion calculations per second.

The performance is enough to make the machine the world's 73rd fastest supercomputer, according to a ranking of the top 500 to be released Sunday. By the time IBM has upgraded the box's 512 chips, each with two processors, and linked it with another 127 identical systems in 2005, Big Blue hopes to take the top spot.

Blue Gene/L is a somewhat exotic machine that's the first phase of an IBM project to tackle a so-far intractable computing problem in genetic research: using the laws of physics to predict how proteins fold from a long chain of building blocks into a complicated structure.

Blue Gene/L's specialized processors currently run at 700MHz, but next year will be 40 percent faster, said Bill Pulleyblank, director of IBM's Deep Computing group and the executive overseeing the project. With the full configuration of 64 racks and roughly 131,072 processors, IBM hopes to achieve a speed of 360 trillion calculations per second--360 teraflops, in supercomputing argot.

Blue Gene/L uses a customized variant of IBM's Power chip family. Each chip has two processing cores, four mathematical engines and circuitry to communicate with five separate networks. Various members of IBM's Power chip family are used in everything from low-end communication gear to Sony gaming consoles, Apple Computers' machines and high-end IBM Unix servers.

The speedy machine is part of an ambitious project to expand the horizons of supercomputing, with the ultimate goal of creating a system that can perform 1 quadrillion calculations per second, or one petaflop. Today's fastest machine, NEC's Earth Simulator, is comparatively slow--about one-thirtieth of a petaflop--but fast enough to worry the U.S. government that the country is losing its computing lead to Japan.

IBM's Blue Gene research has an academic flavor, but the company also has its eye on profit. IBM is second only to Hewlett-Packard in the $4.7 billion market for high-performance technical computing machines. From 2001 to 2002, IBM's sales grew 28 percent from $1.04 billion to $1.33 billion, while HP's shrank 25 percent, from $2.1 billion to $1.58 billion, according to research firm IDC.

IBM expects a machine it calls Blue Gene/P to be the first to achieve the petaflop milestone. The company also is planning another Blue Gene computer it calls "Cyclops" that's expected to use chips with many processors on each slice of silicon.

When IBM launched the Blue Gene project in 2000, it hoped to build Blue Gene/P in 2004 or 2005. Now it appears that Blue Gene/L is will arrive in 2005 and Blue Gene/P in 2006, said Debra Goldfarb, vice president of products and strategy for IBM's Deep Computing group.

Big Blue deliberately threw out much of its rule book when designing the Blue Gene machines. "When we launched, we consciously said we're not tied to a product. As soon as you do that, you dramatically constrain the options you explore," Pulleyblank said.

But some commercialization will happen with a limited set of customers and partners that will help IBM figure out how best to apply Blue Gene technology to mainstream product lines such as its blade servers that pack large numbers of servers into a small volume, Goldfarb said.

Blue Gene/L is slated for installation at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The Blue Gene computers will run the Linux operating system, Pulleyblank has said. With the machine's peculiar design, though, Linux actually resides on only a comparatively small number of processors; the bulk of the chips run a stripped-down operating system that lets it carry out the instructions of the Linux nodes.