U.S. regains supercomputer lead on Top 500 list

U.S. regains supercomputer lead on Top 500 list

Federal agencies now possess the two most powerful computers on the Top 500 supercomputers list.

The latest listing brings to an end the three-year run stranglehold on the top spot by the Japanese government. Even though this may be good news to those worried about the country's computer supremacy, a report to be issued by the National Research Council ominously warns of the United States falling behind in its computer prowess despite these gains.

Twice a year, a team of volunteer computer scientists publishes the Top 500 list of the world's most powerful supercomputers. The rankings rely on Linpack benchmark test results submitted by the computer operators themselves. Linpack measures how many floating-point operations per second a computer can do for an extended period of time.

Topping the list for the first time is BlueGene/L, a computer IBM Corp. is building for the Energy Department's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory [see GCN story]. BlueGene/L executed 70.72 trillion FLOPS.

The machine, still under construction, is operating at about a fourth of its final capacity, said David Turek, vice president of IBM's deep computing division. For this benchmark, the system ran 32,768 PowerPC processors.

Also new to the list is NASA's Columbia, which was just delivered to NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., by SGI of Mountain View, Calif. [see GCN story]. That system clocked 51.87 TFLOPS. Columbia has 20 tethered SGI 512-processor Altix systems running a total of 10,240 Intel Itanium 2 processors.

The computers edged aside the Earth Simulator in Yokohama that held the title of fastest supercomputer. The unit, built by NEC Corp., ran at 35.86 TFLOPS. That the Japanese computer has consistently outranked all U.S. computers sparked congressional debate over whether not possessing the world's most powerful computer technology put the country at a defense and economic disadvantage.

This is still the view taken by the National Research Council. Its coming report warns that the government might be wasting its computing R&D funds on a pointless supercomputer arms war.

"Whether the most powerful and most expensive supercomputer is located in the United States or elsewhere does not indicate loss or gain of leadership in supercomputing technology," said Marc Snirin, co-chairman of the NRC committee that assembled the report, set for release early next year. "Our concern is that current investments and plans are not sufficient to provide the capabilities that our country needs."

The report, funded by Energy, will argue that the country is relying too heavily on cluster-style supercomputers that use commercial hardware. More federal research needs to be devoted to developing new architectures suited to specific defense and research needs, the council has concluded.

"The use of commodity clusters results in lower sustained performance and higher programming costs for some demanding applications," a draft of the report noted. "This is especially true of some security-related computations where shorter time to solution is of critical importance, justifying the use of custom-built, high-bandwidth supercomputers even at a higher cost per solution."

According to the Top 500 site, a total of 296 systems on the Top 500 list are clusters, making it the most common architecture on the list.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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