U.S. and IBM dominate new list of top 500 supercomputers

The U.S. is once again home to the world’s most powerful supercomputer, rebounding after it was knocked out of the top spot by China two years ago and Japan last year.

The latest Top500 list of supercomputers, released lastmonth, alsomarks a return of European technology in force, as the continentaccounted for four of the first 10 systems on the list, and revealsthat these ever-powerful computers are increasingly used for commercialpurposes.

Even though U.S. technology has dominated the Top500 rankings sinceresearchers first compiled the list in 1993, the two-year absence fromthe top spot had hit a national nerve.

President Barack Obama mentionedChina’s top-ranked supercomputer intwo separate speeches, including last year’s State of the Unionaddress, and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize winner inphysics, warned that America’s innovation leadership was at risk.

Though competitive threats to U.S. technology leadership remain — forexample, China launched its fourth manned space mission in June, justmonths after the U.S. ended its shuttle program — the U.S. is back ontop of the supercomputer world, at least for now.

The Linux-based IBM Sequoia system that tops the latest list is poweredby Power BQC 16-core processors running at 1.6GHz, and mostly relies onarchitecture and parallelism, not Moore’s Law, to achieve speeds of16.32 sustained petaflops. Sequoia, an IBM BlueGene/Q, is installed atthe U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

“We’re at the point where the processors themselves aren’t reallygetting any faster,” said Michael Papka, deputy associate director forcomputing, environment and life sciences at the DOE’s Argonne NationalLaboratory, which runs a similar IBM system that placed third on thelist. “Moore’s Law is generally slowing down and we’re [getting fasterspeeds] by parallelism.”

“The classic trick of waiting for Moore’s Law to come along and helpyou out really doesn’t exist anymore,” added David Turek, vicepresident of exascale computing at IBM.

Industry usage dominates
Both the Sequoia supercomputer and the Mira system housed at theArgonne lab are among the first IBM supercomputers to use water-coolingtechnology.

The most striking thing about the list, though, to Jack Dongarra, aprofessor of computer science at the University of Tennessee and aleader of the Top500 program, is that more than half of the machines onit aren’t deployed in research, in academic settings or by government.

“More than half are used by industry,” he said. “Industry gets it.These machines are important; they can provide some competitiveadvantage.”

Europeans, in particular, are moving aggressively to build outcommercial supercomputing capability, despite all the troubles theireconomies are facing. “The Europeans weren’t keeping pace,” Dongarranoted. “Today, we see a resurgence.”

The European machines in the top 10 — two in Germany, one in Italy andone in France — are new, he said.

IBM made 213 of the systems on the list, including five of the top 10.Hewlett-Packard was the secondmost well-represented computer maker,with 141 of the 500 systems. Nearly 75% of the systems listed run onIntel processors, and 13% use AMD chips.

Mikael Ricknas of the IDG News Servicecontributed tothis story.

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