Which supercomputers rule?

Latest top 500 ranking of the speedy machines includes old favorites like IBM's BlueGene/L, plus a few surprises.
Written by Erica Ogg, Contributor
It was November 2000 when the first supercomputer passed 4 teraflops, or 4 trillion calculations per second. Now, that's the minimum requirement to even show up on the latest version of a list of the 500 fastest machines.

Supercomputing, which pits the highest-end machines against challenges such as forecasting the global climate in coming decades or finding oil reservoirs underground, is a fast-changing field. The Top500 list, released twice annually at supercomputing conferences, has the most turnover compared with the preceding list yet, according to the researchers who compile it.

Many systems on the newest Top500 ranking, set to be released Wednesday at the International Supercomputing Conference in Dresden, Germany, weren't on the list at all when the last one was released in November 2006.

But one familiar supercomputer, IBM's BlueGene/L at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, again topped the Top500 List of Supercomputers with 131,072 processors, staying far ahead of its closest competitors by achieving speeds of 280.6 teraflops. The big change is Cray's Jaguar system, which leapfrogged from the No. 10 to the No. 2 position. The only two other systems to surpass 100 teraflops were also made by Cray: Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Jaguar, at 101.7 teraflops, and Sandia National Laboratory's Red Storm, at 101.4 teraflops.

The total performance of all 500 systems reached 4.92 petaflops, or 1,000 teraflops. The systems on the November list topped out at 3.54 petaflops, and the June 2006 compilation totaled 2.79 petaflops.

IBM dominated the list with 6 of the top 10 systems and 192 of the total 500, though Hewlett-Packard is actually the overall leader in terms of the percentage of systems. Forty percent, or 203 of 500, are powered by HP, but IBM's total teraflop sum is 2,060, almost double Hewlett-Packard's total of 1,202.

Coming in at No. 5, IBM's New York Blue at Stony Brook University is new to the list, as is IBM's similar Blue Gene system at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at No. 7. Dell's Abe PowerEdge 1955 server, at the University of Illinois' National Center for Supercomputing Applications, made its at the No. 8 spot.

The main measurement used in compiling the list is the Linpack measurement, which puts each system through its paces by having to solve a dense system of linear equations. The Top500 acknowledges it isn't a complete test of system performance, but it's a way to test for performance on a similar problem across each system. The need for a more complete benchmarking system has been under discussion for several years.

Intel managed to increase its lead over Advanced Micro Devices in the number of systems using x86 processors. Just over half--52 percent--of the systems use Intel's x86 chips, up from 45.6 percent, while AMD's share shrunk from a 22.6 percent share to 21.2 percent. Intel's Itanium processors are beginning to move off the list, appearing in 28 of the 500 systems, down from last year's count of 35.

The most noticeable change in applications of supercomputing is the rise in the number of systems used in geophysics, which rose from 23 in November to 37 on the newest list.

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