Big Blue Once Again Tops Supercomputer List

In what has become a closely-watched event in the world of high-performance computing, IBM’s BlueGene/L System yesterday was named the fastest computer in the world on the Top 500 supercomputer rankings.

BlueGene/L is a joint development of IBM and the Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration. It is installed at DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif.

BlueGene/L also occupied the top spot on the last Top 500 list issued in November 2004. However, the system has doubled in size during the last six months and reached a new record Linpack benchmark performance of 136.8 TFlop/s (“teraflops” or trillions of calculations per second). This system, once completed, will again be doubled in size and is expected to remain the number one supercomputer in the world for the next few editions of the Top 500 list.

“The Blue Gene architecture will run certain problems at tremendous speeds, 10 times faster than previously possible,” said Dimitri Kusnezov, director of the NNSA Advanced Simulation and Computing program. “Once complete, the National Nuclear Security Administration will have available the kind of national security tool needed to rapidly analyze urgent nuclear weapons stockpile aging issues. It will support broader simulation codes to support certification of our stockpile.”

Big Blue’s Domination

IBM continues to establish itself as the dominant vendor of supercomputers with now more than half of the list (51.8 percent) carrying its label. The Blue Gene architecture helped IBM to gain a similar standing at the very top of the list, where now six of the top ten systems are from IBM, five of which are Blue Gene systems.

The new No. 2-listed system is also an IBM Blue Gene system. It has the same architecture but is smaller in size than the first-place BlueGene/L. It was recently installed at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown, N.Y., and reached 91.2 TFlop/s.

Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff told TechNewsWorld that Blue Gene performs well on the Top 500 list because it was designed for the exact kind of workloads that Linpack measures. Of course, Linpak scores are what determine the Top 500 ranking.

“I don’t suggest that IBM developed BlueGene just to do well in the Top 500 list. There certainly are real-life workloads that correspond well to Linpack benchmarking, but the fact that Blue Gene was tailor-made to run the same type of workloads certainly is a part of the reason IBM made such impressive gains here,” Haff said.

Close Competitors

Blue Gene is closely followed by the Columbia system built by SGI and installed at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. Columbia clocked in at 51.87 TFlop/s. The NEC-built Earth Simulator, which has a Linpack benchmark performance of 35.86 TFlop/s and had held the number one position for five consecutive Top 500 lists before being replaced by BlueGene/L last November, is now shown as number four.

After a close race to the finish line, the updated IBM-built MareNostrum cluster installed at the Barcelona Supercomputer Center in Spain gained the number five spot with 27.91 TFlop/s, just barely ahead of the second European system on the list, an IBM Blue Gene system owned by ASTRON and installed at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, listed with 27.45 TFlop/s.

The 10th spot was captured by an early measurement of Cray’s new Red Storm System at Sandia National Laboratories with 15.25 Tflops/. This is also the new entry level for the Top 10, up from just under 10 TFlop/s Linpack performance six months ago.

Keeping Up the Pace

The rate of innovation and performance improvements seen at the very high end of scientific computing shows no sign of slowing down. This time, half of the top ten systems on the November 2004 Top 500 list were displaced by newly-installed systems, and the last 201 systems on the list from last November are now too slow to be listed any longer.

“The latest list, particularly if you look at the top ten, clearly illustrates the dynamic nature of supercomputing today,” said Erich Strohmaier, one of the founding editors of the Top 500 list and a computer scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “In just one year, we have seen a dramatic turnover from a ranking topped by the Earth Simulator followed by a number of clusters and two prototypes of IBM’s Blue Gene.”

Haff said he expects the supercomputers to continue getting faster, but he doesn’t necessarily expect the same churn rates of the list’s contents. “BlueGene changes the content of the list simply because it’s so well suited to doing well in that style of application,” he said. “But the top numbers are increasing, and the average numbers are increasing at an even greater rate.”

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