IBM's BlueGene Hits Warp Speed


By Otis Port The IBM BlueGene/L supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory just got a fresh dose of steroids. Its number-crunching speed has been pumped up to a phenomenal 183.5 trillion calculations every second. That's 183.5 teraflops in geek-speak -- double the 92 teraflops world record that BlueGene set just six months ago (see BW, 1/17/05, "Holy Screaming Teraflops").

No other supercomputer now comes close to matching this behemoth's peak speed, although Sandia National Laboratories hopes eventually to triple the performance of its 41.5-teraflops Red Storm system from Cray. BlueGene, however, has a lot more muscle coming in short order. In fact, the hardware will double again in size over the next few months, culminating in a projected speed of 367 teraflops later this year.

By then, IBM (IBM) expects another new system at Lawrence Livermore, called ASCI Purple, to be chugging along at 93 teraflops. That would earn it the No. 2 spot on the list of the world's speed demons -- and push Japan's Earth Simulator system all the way down to No. 8. From the time Earth Simulator was switched on in March, 2002, until last fall, it had been the reigning champ on the closely watched Top500 Supercomputer Sites listing.

Top 25 Supercomputers

Rank

Location and User

Computer (Vendor)

Teraflops*

**

U.S.: Lawrence Livermore Lab

BlueGene/L (IBM)

367

1

U.S.: Lawrence Livermore Lab

BlueGene/L (IBM)

183.5

**

U.S.: Lawrence Livermore Lab

ASCI Purple (IBM)

93.4

2

Japan: Riken

Molecular Dynamics Machine

78

**

Germany: Leibniz Computing Center

HLRB-II (SGI)

69

3

Japan: University of Tokyo

Grape-6 (self-made)

64

4

Japan: Undisclosed

(Hitachi)

62

5

U.S.: NASA Ames

Columbia (SGI)

61

**

France: Nuclear Power Agency

Tera10 (Bull)

60

6

U.S.: Sandia National Labs

Red Storm (Cray)

41.5

7

Japan: Earth Simulator Center

Earth Simulator (NEC)

41

8

Spain: Barcelona Super Center

MareNostrum (IBM)

40

**

U.S.: Oak Ridge National Lab

(Cray)

40

9

U.S.: Lawrence Livermore Lab

Thunder (California Digital)

23

10

China: Meteorlogical Administration

(IBM)

22

**

U.S.: Army Corps of Engineers

(Cray)

21

11

U.S.: Los Alamos Lab

ASCI Q (Hewlett-Packard)

20.5

12

U.S.: Virginia Tech

System X (Apple)

20

13

U.S.: Naval Oceanographic Office

Blue Wave (IBM)

20

14

UK: European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF)

(IBM)

16.5

15

UK: ECMWF

(IBM)

16.5

16

U.S.: IBM

BlueGene/L Prototype (IBM)

16.4

**

Korea: Meteorological Administration

(Cray)

16

17

U.S.: Nat'l Center for Super-computing Applications (NCSA)

Tungsten (Dell)

15

18

U.S.: Army Research Lab

John von Neumann (Linux Networx)

14

**

Japan: Atomic Energy Research

(SGI)

13

19

Japan: Riken

Riken Cluster (Fujitsu)

12.5

20

U.S.: Lawrence Livermore Lab

ASCI White (IBM)

12

21

Japan: Nat'l Aerospace Lab

Primepower (Fujitsu)

12

22

U.S.: Pacific Northwest Lab

Mpp2 (HP)

11.6

23

China: Shanghai Super Center

Dawning 4000A (Dawning)

11

24

U.S.: Los Alamos Lab

Lightning (Linux Networx)

11

25

U.S.: Lawrence Livermore Lab

MCR Cluster (Linux Networx)

11

* A teraflop is a trillion (tera) floating-point operations per second (flops) -- calculations where the decimal-point location isn't fixed.

** System has been ordered but isn't yet installed.

Data: www.Top500.org and company reports, as of Mar. 23, 2005

NO WORK SHORTAGE. Built by NEC, Earth Simulator instantly triggered a mighty wailing among U.S. supercomputer users in industries such as autos, aerospace, and drugs. The lack of U.S. progress in high-end computing, they warned, was a threat to U.S. competitiveness. Swifter computers create superior product designs, discover new drugs quicker, and get the goods to market faster.

While Livermore's BlueGene system restores U.S. bragging rights, it won't do anything for industrial competitiveness. The system is dedicated exclusively to classified research on nuclear weapons. Even after it gets topped off with the last of its 131,072 IBM microprocessors, "keeping it busy is not going to be a problem," says Dimitri Kusnezov, director of the Advanced Simulation & Computing program in the Energy Dept.'s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

Indeed, Livermore scientists charged with verifying the reliability of America's nuclear weapons say the simulations they would like to run would bring even a petaflops computer to its knees. A petaflop is 1,000 teraflops, or 1 quadrillion floating point operations per second. Precise atom-by-atom simulations of what's going on inside nuclear weapons could consume tens or hundreds of petaflops. As they age, the plutonium cores of these bombs steadily emit radiation.

This not only damages the surrounding materials but also will eventually turn the weapon into a dud. Livermore simulations now make do with approximations and shortcuts, with each speed boost improving the accuracy of its simulations.

NEXT GENERATION. Livermore's BlueGene may be fenced off from the outside world, but the technology that Energy's NNSA helped develop is now available to commercial users. Big Blue offers 6-teraflop BlueGene servers for $2 million -- and time-share rentals on its own 16.4-teraflops system. Partnering with IBM and other supercomputer suppliers, says NNSA head Linton Brooks, is spinning off technologies that "will help advance our scientific and technological competitiveness."

The next generation of BlueGene systems are slated to hit petaflop speeds by decade's end. That milestone is also being targeted by Cray, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Silicon Graphics (SGI), Sun Microsystems (SUNW), and other supercomputer makers. The top goal of Japan's new 10-year plan is a petaflop system by 2010, and Riken's Genomics Science Center in Yokohama already has designed such a beast.

IBM's BlueGene may have a lock on the top spot for the next few years, but the race to enhance competitiveness by building bigger and badder computers is clearly far from over. Port is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York


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