Top500: IBM Roadrunner hits new heights, Intel dominates

Power multiplied: Multicore systems knock off 301 systems from last November's list

With the latest incarnation of the Top500 supercomputer list released today, it's all about computing hitting a whole new era of power.

The newest Top500 List, which is issued twice a year, was unveiled this morning at the International Supercomputing Conference in Dresden, Germany. The list shows IBM's Roadrunner, which broke the petaflop barrier last month, as the top-performing supercomputer. It also shows Intel Corp. dominating other chip makers, with 75% of the systems on the list Intel-based. And 90% of the quad-core systems are Intel-based as well.

Click on the links to see a video featuring Don Grice, chief engineer of the Roadrunner project, talking about its development, and a photo gallery featuring the supercomputer and its developers at IBM's research facility in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

But what might have surprised the authors of the list the most is that 301 of the 500 supercomputers on last November's list are nowhere to be seen. After seven months, they're simply not powerful enough to make the list.

It's a record, according to Jack Dongarra, a co-creator of the Top 500 list and a distinguished professor at the University of Tennessee. "We attribute it to the many multicore systems on the list," Dongarra told Computerworld. "Look at the incredible amount of change. We haven't ever seen this amount of turnover."

Today, 283 supercomputers on the list use quad cores, and 204 use dual cores.

Only 10 machines on the list have single cores. Last fall, 49 machines had single-core sockets. In June of 2007, there were 87 single cores and in November of 2006, there were 290.

Today's list marks the fist time in three and a half years that IBM's BlueGene system was not in the top spot. It was surpassed by IBM's hybrid Roadrunner supercomputer, which became the first machine to break the lofty petaflop barrier. Running AMD Opteron processors and Cell chips, Roadrunner sustained a speed of 1.026 quadrillion calculations per second. That's about twice as fast as BlueGene/L, which moved into the No. 2 spot today.

Dongarra called breaking the petaflop barrier the "golden ring" of computing.

"The fact that we now have a machine twice as fast as the old No. 1 is getting a lot of attention," said Dongarra. "It's a big change in terms of overall performance. It changes computing in the sense that we've past through a threshold -- the petaflop threshold."

Roadrunner was built at an IBM facility in Poughkeepsie, but it will be disassembled in July and moved in 21 tractor-trailer trucks to its permanent home at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Terry Wallace, principal associate director for science, technology and engineering at Los Alamos, said in a recent interview that before the hybrid Roadrunner machine was built, a nonhybrid Roadrunner was assembled for Los Alamos. Running just AMD Opteron chips, this first machine didn't have the speed boost from the Cell chips to launch it into the petascale range.

Wallace told Computerworld that Los Alamos and IBM technicians and engineers are working together to beef up the original Roadrunner with Cell chips so that it, too, can perform at petaflop speeds. Calling the new and improved supercomputer "son of Roadrunner," they'll begin working on refitting it this fall.

Herb Schultz, a spokesman for IBM, said the BlueGene systems are designed to hit 2 petaflops, but they just haven't been built to capacity yet. He noted, though, that IBM is in negotiations to build out one of the BlueGene systems so it can surpass a petaflop. "I'm sure we'll see another petaflop system in less than a year," he added.

Erich Strohmaier, an author of the Top500 List and a computer scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said he expects a supercomputer to hit 10 petaflops within three years.

"The evolution of computing power is a very gradual process," said Strohmaier. "Each step opens up new capabilities. It's about the whole field and not just one machine getting up into that range."

Dongarra was a little more conservative with his estimates.

Saying that he expects at least a year to pass before another peta-scale system is created, he noted that engineers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory are working on two new supercomputers -- Jaguar and Kraken, both built by Cray Inc. Both are in the early stages of production but are expected to surpass a petaflop. Dongarra said they are slated to be fully functional in 2012.

With the petaflop barrier only weeks behind them, Dongarra said computer scientists at the International Supercomputing Conference this week have met to discuss breaking the exaflop barrier, which is a million trillion floating-point operations per second. He said there's little argument that they'll hit that milestone in about 11 years, since there seems to be an 11-year span between all the major supercomputing barriers.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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