Computer company signs $188 million contract to develop 1-petaflop supercomputer for NSF-funded project at the University of Illinois.

Elizabeth Montalbano, Contributor

November 14, 2011

3 Min Read

Slideshow: Government's 10 Most Powerful Supercomputers

Slideshow: Government's 10 Most Powerful Supercomputers

Slideshow: Government's 10 Most Powerful Supercomputers (click for larger image and for full slideshow)

Cray has replaced IBM as the company building a supercomputer for the National Science Foundation's (NSF)-funded Blue Waters project after Big Blue pulled out in August citing unexpected financial and technical costs.

Cray has signed an $188 million contract with the University of Illinois' National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) to develop a 1-petaflop system based on its XE6 system, eventually upgrading it to its next-generation XK6, the company said Monday.

The finished system will have more than 235 Cray XE6 cabinets based on AMD Opteron 6200 Series processors, and more than 30 cabinets of the XK6 with NVIDIA Tesla GPU computing capability. The XK6 nodes, once added, will increase the systems sustained performance on more complex problems, according to the NCSA.

[ Supercomputers are doing a lot of interesting research. Read NASA Supercomputer Tackles Secrets Of Galaxies. ]

"This configuration will be the most balanced, powerful, and useable system available when it comes online," said NCSA Director Thom Dunning, in a statement. "By incorporating a future version of the XK6 system, Blue Waters will also provide a bridge to the future of scientific computing."

More than 25 research teams will use the Blue Waters system for a range of research, including the prediction of biological systems, the development of the universe after the Big Bang, and to design new materials at the atomic level, according to the NCSA.

The supercomputer also will be used to predict the behavior or severe weather like hurricanes and tornadoes and to simulate complex engineered systems, such as airplanes and automobiles.

Cray will begin installing hardware in the University of Illinois' National Petascale Computing Facility soon, and an early version of the system is expected to be available in early 2012. Blue Waters should be fully deployed by the end of 2012.

In August, IBM terminated its $208 million contract with the university to build a 200,000 processor-core supercomputer for Blue Waters based on its Power7 processor. The company said it would return the money it had received to date for the project, and the university, in turn, was to return the equipment IBM had built.

Despite its failure to complete the Blue Waters job, IBM continues its work with the feds on high-performance computing. The company is currently building a 1.6-petaflop system called Yellowstone for the National Center for Atmospheric Research to inaugurate a new supercomputing facility.

Petaflop-scale systems have recently begun to emerge in the high-performance computing world and are quickly becoming the norm. "Flop" stands for floating-point operations per second, and a petaflop computer can perform a thousand trillion flops.

The top 10 systems on the last bi-annually published list of the most powerful supercomputers in the world were all capable of petaflop or more performance, with the United States government operating five of those systems.

Moreover, the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratories is building a system called Titan it claims will the most powerful in the world once completed.

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