Agencies push for ever-faster supercomputing power

Agencies push for ever-faster supercomputing power

Federally funded supercomputers have dominated the list of the world's fastest publicly benchmarked computers for years, and the government wants more.

Climate research at a Colorado laboratory will get a boost from a new IBM Corp. system, while IBM and an Energy Department laboratory plan to build a massive supercomputer'with a theoretical peak speed about 15 times faster than today's fastest'devoted to studying genes and proteins.

The announcements came last month as the Top500.org committee of U.S. and German computer scientists released the 18th semiannual list of the world's 500 fastest known computers.

U.S.-owned or -funded computers held eight of the top 10, 14 of the top 20 and 18 of the top 30 slots on the list, which ranks performance on the Linpack benchmark suite of linear equations.

Energy's Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative still has the world's fastest computer, the IBM SP system known as ASCI White, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

ASCI White, with 8,192 375-MHz IBM Power3 processors, has a theoretical peak speed of 12.3 trillion floating-point operations per second, although it achieved a maximum of only 7.2 TFLOPS on the Top 500 benchmark.

Look this one up

The National Science Foundation funded the second-ranked computer, the Terascale Computing System at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center. The center in October dedicated the Compaq Alpha Server SC system, powered by 6,048 1-GHz Compaq Alpha processors. It is the largest computer freely available to academic and corporate researchers. Center officials have dubbed the 6-TFLOPS-peak system LeMieux, a tribute to Pittsburgh Penguins hockey star Mario Lemieux.

The refreshed climate-research supercomputer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., will cost NSF $24 million over three years.

NCAR will install it in phases, said Pete Ungaro, vice president for public-sector high-performance computing in IBM's server group.

NCAR's current IBM SP, dubbed Black Forest, has a theoretical peak speed of 1.89 TFLOPS. With 1,260 375-MHz Power3 processors, it is the 11th fastest system on the latest Top 500 list, Ungaro said.

Next year, NCAR will upgrade the system with 1.3-GHz IBM Power4 processors and new internal switch technology, Ungaro said. The revamped computer, to be renamed Blue Sky, will have a theoretical peak of 7 TFLOPS.

NCAR researchers can run a single climate simulation across all the Blue Sky processors, Ungaro said.

The National Weather Service also has a pair of large IBM SP supercomputers at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction in Camp Springs, Md.

Formerly ranked in the top 10, they now rank 13th and 14th with theoretical peak speeds of 1.6 TFLOPS and benchmark runs of almost 1.2 TFLOPS.

The centers use the systems for short-term, operational weather forecasts, Ungaro said. Climate research looks at the Earth on a much wider scale over longer time periods than operational forecasts.

Overall studies

For the past two years IBM has been working on its own research initiative, called Blue Gene, to build a massive supercomputer for protein-folding studies that could lead to new drugs and disease-fighting strategies.

This month Livermore and IBM announced they will design a supercomputer to be called Blue Gene/L that will surpass all current Top 500 systems combined.

Blue Gene/L will run detailed simulations of organic and inorganic molecules, said Dave Nowak, Livermore's ASCI program manager. Livermore wants to study materials relevant to its nuclear-weapons stewardship, whereas IBM is interested in the dynamics of biological molecules.

IBM will try to get 180 TFLOPS out of Blue Gene/L by using 64,000 low-power processors similar to those in today's embedded systems, said Bob Germain, a manager at IBM's Computational Biology Center.

With chips that dissipate less power as heat, the researchers hope for a higher performance-per-volume ratio than today's supercomputers can deliver. Blue Gene/L will probably go into operation in 2004 or 2005.

Livermore soon will seek bids for a 60-TFLOPS computer with a more traditional architecture for classified ASCI work, Nowak said. Both the 60- and the 180-TFLOPS machines will reside at the Livermore, Calif., campus.

Livermore's partnership with IBM is related to the company's one-year research agreement with Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory to develop new computing methods and applications for the life sciences [GCN, Sept. 17, Page 36].

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