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IBM claims supercomputer speed record

September 29, 2004 By Jim Giles This article courtesy of Nature News.

Unconfirmed test puts Blue Gene at top of league.

The information technology firm IBM says it has developed the world's most powerful computer.

The Blue Gene/L system performed just over 36,000 billion calculations a second during tests at IBM's Rochester office in Minnesota, the company announced on 29 September. Although the claims are unlikely to be independently verified until November, when the next worldwide supercomputer league-table is published, experts have long predicted that Blue Gene/L was destined for the top spot.

This device, which will eventually be used to simulate everything from the behaviour of explosives to stars, was developed by IBM in just five years. When the full version is installed next year at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, its top speed is expected to have increased by a factor of ten, to 360,000 billion (3.6 x 1014) calculations a second.

The team hopes eventually to reach a petaflop of speed, some 1015operations a second, although they will not put a date on when they think this can be achieved.

The machine will have a very large impact.
Rick Stevens
Computer scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, Illinois
Their accomplishments push the world's current fastest machine, Japan's Earth Simulator, firmly into second place. That device, which is best known for running high-resolution climate models, can perform 35,860 billion calculations a second and has held the number one position since June 2002.

With outside verification of the speed still to come, researchers at IBM are not yet celebrating. But that could change when the official rankings are announced. "I'm sure there will be a few parties," says Alan Gara, chief architect on the Blue Gene project. "There will be parties in the government too. They want to show that the United States is competitive."

Faster, smaller, cheaper

Supercomputer experts suggest that IBM could dominate the charts over the next few years. Unlike the Earth Simulator, which is built from specially designed computer chips, Blue Gene/L uses hardware similar to that found in desktop machines. This keeps the cost down to around a third of the $300 million needed to build the Earth Simulator. It also allows IBM to build bigger, faster versions simply by adding more chips.

"The machine will have a very large impact," says Rick Stevens, a computer scientist at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

Blue Gene/L is also much smaller and less power-hungry than its rivals are. The Earth Simulator takes up 3,000 square metres of floor space and is housed in a building the size of an aircraft hanger; IBM's machine has a footprint one hundred times smaller.

But IBM does not hold all the supercomputing trump cards. Blue Gene/L's network of 130,000 processors gives it enormous processing capability, but shuttling the information along the wires between the chips takes time. Some simulations, such as certain climate models, will still work better on Earth Simulator, which uses specially designed hardware to shunt data around.

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