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Top Supercomputer Nearly Doubles in Speed

The fastest land animal may be the cheetah, but when it comes to supercomputers, the fastest kitty of them all is the Jaguar, a Cray supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory powered by AMD Opteron processors. Oak Ridge's Cray system achieved a 69 percent performance gain in just six months in results announced today.

The big leap for the big cat came through a processor upgrade. By upgrading from 2.3GHz quad-core Opteron processors to the 2.6GHz six-core Istanbul processor, the Jaguar went from a one petaflop (PF) system to a 1.75 PF system in just six months.

AMD (NYSE: AMD) showed a video (here on YouTube) of the upgrade process at its analysts day meeting last week.

The Top 500 is compiled by researchers in Europe and the U.S. and issued twice annually, in June and in November, at supercomputing shows. The SC09 conference is currently taking place in Oregon, where the list was issued.

This is a list of servers most companies, to say nothing of individuals, will never own, but their use potentially impacts all of us. These supercomputer systems are used largely in energy and academic settings for applications like climate simulation, energy research and biological science and drug research.

Some of these systems could fill a basketball court, and the electric bill likely carries out several decimal places. Their scores are based on a benchmark called Linpack, a collection of Fortran subroutines that analyze and solve linear equations and linear least-squares problems.

AMD does well on the top of the list – five of the top 10, 10 of the top 20 – but only has 42 machines total on the list. Intel (NASDAQ: INTC), on the other hand, powers 402 of the 500 machines on the list, including three in the top 10. Nehalem generation Xeons are in 21 of the top 100, a good showing for a processor less than a year old.

The most powerful supercomputer running Intel processors is in at number five, the Chinese supercomputer Milky Way, which used a combination of Nehalem and pre-Nehalem Xeons along with 2560 ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2 cards to build the first petaflop computer outside the U.S. and the first to use graphics processors.

Raising the supercomputer bar

The list reflects the ever-rising bar for supercomputing performance. The entry level system on the list is a 20 teraflop machine. Just this past June, the bottom of the list was a 17 teraflop machine.

Quad-core processors are in 427 systems, dual-core is in 59 systems and four are using single core processors. Six systems use IBM's Cell B/E processor, used in the PlayStation 3, and two use the six-core "Istanbul" Opteron processors. Intel and AMD have 444 systems combined. IBM's Power processor is in 52 systems, down from 55 last June.

HP (NYSE: HPQ) leads in the number of systems, with 210 of the Top 500 bearing the HP logo, while IBM has 186 systems. IBM has the performance lead, though, with 35.1 percent of installed total performance (down from 39.4 percent in June) compared to HP with 23.0 percent (down from 25.1 percent).

The U.S. still leads in total HPC installations, but that is dropping, from 291 in June to 277 of the Top 500 now. Europe gained share, from 145 systems to 153 systems. Asia is up one to 50.