Arik Hesseldahl

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Fujitsu Supercomputer Remains World Champ, but IBM and Intel Are the Real Computing Kings

Today is a big day of the year for those who keep score on the world’s most powerful computers. It’s one of the two days each year that the Top 500 list of the world’s most powerful, publicly known supercomputers is released by researchers at the University of Mannheim in Germany, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

If you’re a regular AllThingsD reader, you’ve already been introduced to the world’s most power supercomputer: It is the Fujitsu K Computer, which the Japanese computing concern disclosed earlier this month, and it runs in Japan’s quasi-public research institution RIKEN. That’s it in the picture above.

It’s capable of performance as high as 10.51 petaflops, or 10.51 quadrillion floating point operations per second. The same machine had been rated in the top spot on the list before, but was less powerful then, because it was still being assembled, and then capable of only 8.16 petaflops.

The machine is based on SPARC chips — the chips for which Sun Microsystems, now part of Oracle, gained such renown. Fujitsu has been building SPARC chips under license and using them in its own servers and supercomputers for years. In this case, there are 705,024 SPARC64 processing cores in action. And if my memory is correct, the chips in question each have four cores on board, meaning there are 176,256 individual processing chips in the machine.

It’s the first machine on the Top 500 list to venture past the 10-petaflop milestone; however, work is underway in the U.S. on a machine known as Titan, which will supposedly break the 20-petaflop mark sometime next year.

In the meantime, the second most powerful machine in the world is in China. The Tianhe-1A system took the top spot on the list a year ago — and in the process, caused President Obama such consternation about the state of American leadership in innovation that he mentioned it in his State of the Union address to Congress. Its performance reaches 2.57 petaflops and it’s powered by a combination of Intel-made Xeon processors and Nvidia graphical processing units.

In fact, the supercomputers in the top 10 spots on the list are otherwise unchanged from the list released in June.

At No. 3 is Jaguar, the system at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory that is being rebuilt into the machine called Titan, which I mentioned before. It’s a system built by Cray primarily around Nvidia GPUs and Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices. Its current performance is just shy of 1.8 petaflops.

The No. 4 system is in China. It’s called Nebulae and is at the National Supercomputing Centre in Shenzen. Its performance is just short of the 1.3-petaflop mark. No. 5 is called Tsubame 2.0, and is at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan.

Chip companies in particular like to crow about the use of their products in the systems that wind up on the list. That makes this a banner day for Intel. Of the 500 systems on the list, 384 of them — 77 percent — use Intel chips. Chips from AMD, Intel’s main rival, are in 63 systems.

It’s a banner day for Nvidia, too. Its GPU chips can be found in 35 systems, more than double the number from the previous list. GPUs were invented to make the graphics in computer games more stunning and realistic; as such, it meant they were, from the beginning, pretty good at performing a certain type of math problem known as a floating point operation. It turns out that the people who run supercomputers do a lot of floating point operations — or FLOPs — too. So as GPUs have gotten more powerful, they’re finding their way into an ever-larger number of the world’s top supercomputers. Two supercomputers on the list use GPU chips from AMD’s graphics chip unit, ATI. Two more use IBM’s PowerCell architecture, which is a sibling of the Cell processor chip found in the Sony PlayStation 3.

President Obama shouldn’t feel so bad about the U.S. not being in the top spot. For one thing, practically all of the systems on the list are built on American-made technology. And among the systems that can reach 1 petaflop in performance or more, the U.S. has five, more than any other country. China and Japan have two each, and France has one. And the U.S. has more supercomputers on the list than any other country: 263. European countries have a combined 127; China has 75 and Japan has 30.

Intel may furnish more chips to the Top 500 list than anyone, but the king of the systems vendors on the list is unquestionably IBM, followed by Hewlett-Packard. IBM built 223, or more than 44 percent, of the machines on the list; HP built 140 of them. IBM also led the performance pack: Its machines are responsible for more than 27 percent of the total. Fujitsu, which made the list-topping K Computer, was in second place, with 14.7 percent. Cray and HP were in a statistical dead heat, with about 14 percent each.

Here’s a link to the full list, and a bunch of other things related to supercomputing.


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— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus