Cray leads US thrust for supercomputer supremacy

Supercomputer specialist Cray has been given $97m to upgrade the US's most powerful supercomputer, Jaguar, to a new petascale system named Titan that could take the Top500 lead
Written by Jack Clark, Contributor on

The US is fighting back for pole position in global supercomputing, after seeing its lead lost first to China, then Japan.

Cray XK6 supercomputer

The US is hoping that the Cray XK6 high-performance computer will help it win back pole position in global supercomputing. Image credit: Cray

High-performance computing specialist Cray announced on Tuesday that it had been awarded a $97m (£62m) contract to upgrade the US's most powerful supercomputer — the Department of Energy's 'Jaguar' — to a new, more powerful system called 'Titan'.

"In 2008, Jaguar set a world record for computer speed with sustained performance of more than a petaflop on two scientific applications, and has subsequently run five applications above that threshold," Cray said in a statement on Tuesday. "Cray and [the Oak Ridge National Laboratory] look to continue this trend as the lab's system evolves from a Cray XT5 machine to the new Cray XK6 supercomputer."

Jaguar was the world's most powerful computer until 2010, when its Rmax score of 1.7 petaflops was eclipsed by the 2.5 petaflops Chinese-made Tianhe-1A. This was superseded in turn by the 8.16 petaflops of the Japanese K Computer in June 2011. Rmax is a score within the Linpack benchmark which the Top500 organisation uses to rank computers according to how many floating-point mathematical computations they can perform in a single second.

The upgrade to Titan is expected to yield between 10 and 20 petaflops.

Tesla GPUs

Initially Cray will replace all of Jaguar's XT5 compute blades' processors with 16-core AMD Interlagos CPUs, which began shipping to server makers in September, alongside around 1,000 of Nvidia's Tesla-20 series of supercomputing specific graphical processing units (GPUs).

Cray hopes to complete Titan's next major stage — adding between 7,000 and 18,000 of Nvidia's upcoming 'Kepler' Tesla-based GPUs to the system — by the second half of 2012. The computer should be available for general use in 2013.

By then, Titan will have around 300,000 processing cores and 600 terabytes of memory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) said in a statement.

GPUs are seeing increasing use in supercomputing due to their power efficiency relative to CPUs, and aptitude for performing parallel supercomputing tasks such as the simulation of particle systems.

Titan will allow for significantly greater realism in models and simulations and the resulting scientific breakthroughs will provide the return on this national investment.
– Thom Mason, ORNL

China's Tianhe-1A used 7,168 Tesla GPUs paired with 14,336 Intel CPUs along with 2,048 experimental Chinese-developed FT1000 heterogeneous processors, while K Computer used Fujitsu-made Sparc-based processors.

The Department of Energy's computers are typically used to simulate US nuclear warheads, but Titan will do more than that, ORNL said. Titan will work on simulating ways of developing biofuels from naturally existing flora, such as switchgrass and poplar trees, along with working on solar cells and new battery technologies.

"All of these areas of science will benefit from Titan's enormous increase in computational power," ORNL's director, Thom Mason, said in the statement. "Titan will allow for significantly greater realism in models and simulations and the resulting scientific breakthroughs and technological innovations will provide the return on this national investment. Discoveries that take weeks even on a system as powerful as Jaguar might take days on Titan."

To 20 petaflops, and beyond

The XK6 architecture on which Titan will be based was first announced by Cray in May, and the company has said it will able to scale up to 50 petaflops thanks to future chips and its Torus networking architecture.

More major supercomputing announcements are expected. In August IBM pulled out of a contract with the National Centre for Supercomputing Applications to develop a 10 petaflop supercomputer, leaving the centre looking for a new supercomputing specialist to build the computer by 2012.

Funding for Titan came from the DOE's Office of Science.

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