IBM Supercomputer Hits New Top Speed As Competition Looms

Blue Gene/L at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory hits speed of 280.6 teraflops.

Aaron Ricadela, Contributor

October 27, 2005

4 Min Read

In a ceremony at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California Thursday, officials from the Department of Energy and IBM celebrated completion of the world's fastest supercomputer, and said IBM's Blue Gene/L system had doubled its previous performance. The new record of 280.6 teraflops, or trillion floating-point operations per second, surpasses a top speed of 136.8 teraflops that a half-complete version of the system achieved in June.

Now, the race is on to reach 1,000 trillion calculations per second, a milestone that could bring sweeping changes to science, engineering, and business, and which has IBM and its government partners dueling with Japan to reach the mark.

Blue Gene/L, which grew out of an IBM research project to explore new computer architectures, achieved the new result running benchmark software called Linpack, used to create a closely watched list of the world's 500 fastest computers. A new version of the list is due next month at a supercomputing conference in Seattle.

The Blue Gene project takes its name from a protein folding study that inspired the project. The installation at Livermore runs software to help maintain the nation's stockpile of nuclear weapons. "Blue Gene is an R&D machine we turned into a production machine," said Michael Anastasio, director of Livermore, one of three nuclear weapons research labs operated by the Energy Department.

Together with ASC Purple, a 100-teraflop system near completion, the result caps the government's 10-year Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative, which aimed to replace nuclear weapons tests with supercomputing simulations by increasing performance of the nation's most powerful machines by a million-fold between 1995 and 2005. "We're standing at the threshold of a new era in high-performance computing," said Linton Brooks, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, at the ceremony.

Now, IBM is trying to sell its Blue Gene design into commercial markets, in addition to the universities and research labs that have been early customers of the machine. IBM has built about a dozen of the systems, which can achieve extremely high performance on certain applications while consuming a fraction of the power and space as more traditional designs.

"We did this because we're greedy," said Nick Donofrio, executive VP of innovation and technology at IBM, during remarks Thursday. "It makes good business sense." Fields including aerospace, auto engineering, biotechnology, and finance are starting to adopt supercomputing technology to achieve design efficiencies, reduce the costs of physical tests, and understand markets with new clarity. At the same time, the computer industry is looking ahead to the milestone of a petaflop, or 1,000 trillion calculations per second. That speed, which has never been achieved, is predicted to enable scientific and engineering breakthroughs in fields including pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, and finance. "The question is whether we'll get there first," Donofrio said.

The Japanese government's ministry of science and technology plans to build a new supercomputer, which could operate at 10 petaflops, by 2011. Japan's Earth Simulator supercomputer in Yokohama, built by NEC Corp., was the world's fastest until Blue Gene/L surpassed its speed of 35.9 teraflops last year. Dennis Lam, a manager of high-performance computing technology at NEC Solutions America, says the forthcoming system will be highly specialized and designed to target applications in nanotechnology and biology research. "The Japanese government is interested in a system that can really open the door for nanotechnology," he says.

The Earth Simulator, which became the world's fastest supercomputer in 2002, is used to model global warming, hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanic activity by researchers from around the world. Japanese automakers are also using the system for crash testing and other simulations, according to Lam. "In terms of usefulness, the Earth Simulator can perform better on many applications than the Blue Gene system," he says. As for IBM's No. 1 ranking, "we don't really care," he adds. "The Top 500 list basically relies on one number," the Linpack benchmark.

During the dedication ceremony at Lawrence Livermore lab, IBM and Livermore scientists sought to demonstrate that Blue Gene could achieve high performance levels on real scientific codes as well as benchmark tests. For example, the system was able to sustain a speed of 101.5 teraflops over more than seven hours running a program called ddcMD, which NNSA administrator Brooks called a "workhorse" of the lab. In demonstrations, laboratory scientists showed how Blue Gene running the software on its 131,072 processors can model the solidification of the element Tantalum down to the atomic level at a resolution of 16 million atoms, vs. 64,000 atoms with previous models.

Blue Gene runs a specialized set of applications such as studying the behavior of materials under varying temperatures and pressures, at extremely high performance, while ASC Purple, based on IBM's Power 5 architecture, runs at 100 teraflops and is designed to run a broader set of applications, according to Doug East, a division leader for high-performance systems at Lawrence Livermore. Blue Gene/L, which Lawrence Livermore brought online at its full capacity last month, will be open to outside researchers for unclassified scientific work until February, when its operations become classified.

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