US reclaims supercomputing lead with (relatively) low-power Sequoia

After two and a half years, the United States once again holds the title of having the world’s fastest supercomputer, according to the Top500 list released June 18 at the International Supercomputing Conference (ISC12) in Hamburg, Germany.

The Energy Department’s Sequoia beat out Japan’s K Computer, which held the top spot on the previous two lists, produced biannually.

Sequoia, an IBM BlueGene/Q system installed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, uses 1,572,864 cores to achieve a sustained speed of 16.32 petaflops (a petaflop is a quadrillion floating-point operations/sec). Japan’s K Computer operates at a sustained speed of 10.51 petaflops. Sequoia is also one of the most energy-efficient supercomputers, with a power usage rate of around 2 gigaflops/watt.

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Sequoia is used to manage the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons without underground testing, National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator Thomas D’Agostino said in a release.

More specifically, “Sequoia will provide a more complete understanding of weapons performance, notably hydrodynamics and properties of materials at extreme pressures and temperatures. In particular, the system will enable suites of highly resolved uncertainty quantification calculations to support the effort to extend the life of aging weapons systems; what we call a life extension program,” said Bob Meisner, NNSA director of the Advanced Simulation and Computing program.

Three other Energy supercomputers also ranked in the top 20, the department announced. Mira at Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill., ranked third (8.15 petaflops); Jaguar at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., ranked sixth (1.94 petaflops); and Cielo, jointly operated by Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M., and Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., ranked fifteenth (1.11 petaflops).

Oak Ridge is currently in the process of upgrading Jaguar, which could potentially oust Sequoia from its top seat. The final upgrade is scheduled for late 2012, and when it's completed, the name of the machine will change from Jaguar to Titan. The final system is expected to have a processor speed in the range of 10 to 20 petaflops. Last November Jaguar was ranked third at 1.75 petaflops, after Japan’s K Computer (10.51 petaflops) and China’s Tianhe-1A system (2.57 petaflops).

Several other U.S. supercomputers made the list as well. In fact, 252 of the top 500 systems are in the United States, reported IDG News Service.

Petascale computers are becoming fairly common, and the technology is available now to scale up much higher, reported Ars Technica. The hurdle? Cost.

“We could get another order of magnitude with this technology if someone would write a check,” Dave Turek, vice president of high-performance computing at IBM, said in the article. “But no one would want to write that check.”

However, as Zack Whittaker pointed out in his ZDNet blog, what really matters is the people who use the computers. “At the end of the day, supercomputers are just tools,” he said.

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.

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