IBM regains supercomputer bragging rights

The new Top500 list is heavy with Big Blue iron, and a Chinese system hits the top 10.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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IBM has regained dominance on a list of the 500 fastest supercomputers and has also landed two unusual prototypes in the top 10.


What's new:
IBM built 224 of the 500 fastest supercomputers and hopes its Blue Gene/L design will carry it to the No. 1 spot within six months.

Bottom line:
Big Blue believes its designs should allay concerns that the United States is losing its supercomputing edge to Japan. And low-cost clusters of machines now account for more than half the systems on the list.

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Of the systems on the latest Top500 list, Big Blue built 224 and Hewlett-Packard built 140, giving IBM back the lead it lost in 2001. Two new systems, ranked No. 4 and No. 8, are prototypes of Blue Gene/L, a system that uses vastly less space and power than its competitors.

IBM calls the prototype systems evidence that its years-long research effort is bearing fruit. But HP, which in 2003 had the most sales in the broader high-performance technical computing market, counters that it had the same number of new systems on the list--108--as IBM.

The list, released twice a year at supercomputing conferences, is based on a mathematical speed test called Linpack. The top system--NEC's long-dominant, 5,120-processor Earth Simulator--can perform 35.8 trillions of calculations per second, or 35.8 teraflops.

Linpack measures one aspect of supercomputer performance, but list organizer Jack Dongarra of the University of Tennessee is working on a broader suite of tests so a government supercomputing project can gain a better-rounded view. He expects the Top500 to stick with the Linpack yardstick, though.

New arrivals
As with November's Top500 list, there are plenty of new entrants.

The 1-teraflop threshold, crossed by 12 systems three years ago, now has been attained by 242 systems.

The new No. 1

IBM has pushed HP aside for having the most systems on the Top500 supercomputer list.

ManufacturerTop500 systems (%)
 Nov. 2003June 2004
Silicon Graphics8.24.2
Sun Microsystems4.03.0
Source: Top500
And the bottom-ranked system on this list was the 242nd six months ago--record turnover, according to the list organizers at the University of Mannheim, the University of Tennessee and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

As expected, the No. 2 position is held by California Digital's Thunder, a system at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that boasts 4,096 of Intel's Itanium 2 processors and a speed of 19.9 teraflops.

Also new in the top 10 is an IBM system at the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts that features 2,112 Power4 + processors. It ranks sixth with a speed of 9 teraflops. Fujitsu's Super Combined Cluster at the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research reached 8.7 teraflops. There's also a Chinese system, the Dawning 4000A, which sports 2,560 Advanced Micro Devices Opteron processors and can manage a speed of 8 teraflops.

Missing during this go-around is Apple Computer's System X at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, which soared to the No. 3 position in November then vanished for an upgrade to newer hardware.

AMD's Opteron, which first arrived on the list six months ago, has made substantial inroads with 30 systems on the list.

There also were 30 of IBM's BladeCenters--chassis that holds many slim "blade" servers. One of them--a 168-processor system at the Joint Supercomputer Center in Moscow--uses IBM's JS20 blades. The JS20 uses the same PowerPC 970 processors that were in the System X.

Blue Gene moving up
The Blue Gene/L machines--three of which have been sold so far--are an unusual design based on a variation of IBM's Power family of processors. Each chip has dual processors, and each processor has built-in circuitry to communicate with five separate networks. That means the systems don't need a separate, expensive switch to link all the processors, and that doubling the number of processors comes close to doubling the overall performance, said Bill Pulleyblank, a director of IBM's Deep Computing group.

The top 10

Here are the 10 most powerful supercomputers, as of June 2004.

  1. NEC's Earth Simulator
  2. California Digital's Thunder at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
  3. Hewlett-Packard's ASCI Q at Los Alamos National Laboratory
  4. IBM's Blue Gene/L DD1 prototype at the Thomas Watson Research Center
  5. Dell's Tungsten at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications
  6. Two IBM Power4-based clusters at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts' High Performance Computing Facility
  7. Fujitsu's Super Combined Cluster at the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, also known as Riken
  8. IBM's Blue Gene/L DD2 prototype at the Thomas Watson Research Center
  9. HP's Itanium-based cluster at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
  10. Dawning's 4000A at Shanghai Supercomputer Center
Source: Top500
IBM built two prototypes, the No. 4 ranked system, with 8,192 500MHz processors and a speed of 13.8 teraflops, and the No. 8 ranked machine, with 4,096 700MHz processors and a speed of 8.7 teraflops. The 700MHz chips will be used in a Blue Gene/L, the construction of which will start this fall at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

There's a "good chance" the Livermore system will top the Top500 this November, said Dave Turek, leader of the Deep Computing team. He scoffs at governmental fretting that the United States is losing dominance to the Japanese because of Earth Simulator.

"The trajectory of it is already clear. Those parties who might be wringing their hands about the supremacy of the Japanese ought to be wringing their hands about something else," Turek said.

One of the reasons is compactness. The top-ranked Blue Gene/L is about the size of eight refrigerators. The Earth Simulator, though three times faster, occupies a room 71 yards long and 55 yards wide.

IBM eventually plans to make a product out of Blue Gene/L--but not yet. "When does Blue Gene make the transition from our characterization as a research project to a more mainstream product? We're not ready to make that declaration yet," Turek said. "Pretty soon we'll be able to declare our intent here."

IBM also is working on another design, Blue Gene/C. Pulleyblank acknowledges that its chips have many more processors on each slice of silicon, but otherwise remains mum.

A growing market
Supercomputers are at the high end of the much larger high-performance technical computing market, which is growing faster than the overall economy.

Market researcher IDC expects the market to expand from $6.1 billion in 2004 to $7.6 billion in 2008. Unit shipments will grow even faster, from about 112,000 in 2004 to about 176,000 in 2008, according to the forecast.

It's common for falling computer prices to mean that shipment growth outpaces revenue growth. But in the high-performance technical computing market, the trend is reinforced by the idea of computing clusters--groups of low-end systems linked with high-speed networks.

Clusters, often using Linux running on computers with Intel or AMD processors, don't run some jobs as efficiently as more monolithic designs. But they work well enough at a low enough price that major customers are snapping them up. For example, of the seven Boeing supercomputers on this Top500, six are clusters using Xeon processors and one is a Cray X1.

And clusters let Dell, a company better known for its reliance on Intel and Microsoft research than its own engineering abilities, build the No. 5 system called Tungsten at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

Clusters, which also can be assembled from higher-end parts, accounted for 281 of the 500 systems, for the first time crossing the halfway mark.

But some jobs aren't amenable to cluster approach--one being decryption of coded communications. And there still is a large market for modest machines, such as those with four or eight processors churning away on jobs such as structural and stress analysis, said Bruce Toal, HP's marketing director of high-performance technical computing.

Big Blue is getting bigger in the market, nearing HP's top rank. From 2002 to 2003, IBM's share of the market grew from 28.2 percent to 30.2 percent with sales of $1.62 billion. HP, with $1.79 billion in revenue for 2003, shrank slightly from 33.6 percent to 33.5 percent.

Next in line in 2003 were Sun Microsystems, with $981 million in revenue, Dell with $387 million, Silicon Graphics with $224 million, Cray with $157 million and NEC with $67.5 million, according to IDC.

HP likes to direct attention to the overall market share statistics. But it's clear the company still has ambitions for the Top500.

"It is a two-horse race," Toal said, conceding the loss to IBM on the current list, "but stay tuned for next time."