RealTime IT News

Sun To Christen Texas Supercomputer

This Friday, there will be a party on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.

What else is new, right?

Well for starters, the party is to celebrate the launch of what will be one of the fastest supercomputers in the world, and definitely the fastest available for scientists looking to do non-military research.

The computer is the 500-teraflop system called Ranger, built by UT and Sun Microsystems at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at UT's J.J. Pickle Research Campus.

Based on the November 2007 Top 500 list of supercomputers, it will be second only to IBM's Blue Gene/L supercomputer in terms of performance, or third if you include the distributed petaflop grid that Folding@Home has assembled with PlayStation 3 users.

Ranger is a Sun Constellation supercomputer built on 82 Sun Microsystems blade servers connected by two ultra-dense switches and 72 of the X4500 "Thumper" storage servers attached. Ranger uses 15,744 of AMD's beleaguered Quad Core Opteron processors, which have been the subject of several delays.

Sun and UT began building Ranger before Christmas and has slowly ramped up the system, adding more and more blades for more processing jobs. With the dedication ceremony this Friday, the whole machine will be available to researchers.

[cob:Related_Articles]For Volker Bromm, a researcher in the Department of Astronomy at UT, this is a chance to use some real horsepower for the first time in a very long time. "Between 2000 and 2005, within the scientific community, every astronomy department had a small Beowulf cluster in the basement with about 128 processors and a fraction of the power we have now with Ranger," he told

Not every one of the 15,000 CPUs will go to one task; no application is that parallel. Multiple tasks will run at the same time, partitioned over the many CPUs. Tasks will use maybe 1,000 processors at the most, until they are rewritten to take advantage of the full power of the server.

Ranger isn't just UT's toy. It will be used by scientists across the country in fields such as biochemistry, advanced physics, astrophysics, climate change and climate simulation. Bromm hopes to use it to simulate galaxy formation, from the macro issue of the galaxy's shape to the micro issues of how gases disperse.

Many of the supercomputers on the Top 500 lists are used for military purposes by the government, making them unavailable to a cosmologist who wants to simulate galaxy formations, like Dr. Bromm. The few systems out there available to scientists were not very competitive, he said, and there was a long, arduous process to reserve time on one of them to run simulations.

Renting out compute time on Ranger won't be like borrowing a library book, but he thinks it will be worth it. "Now it's worth the effort because you can get so much computing power that it's worth it. So I think this will change the calculations that many researchers will do," said Bromm.

He estimates the waiting list to get access to Ranger will be about three months.

"In reality, people are always scrambling for high-end computing resources. There are quite a few machines out there, but competition for large amounts of computing time is very stiff," he said.

Recently, the UK shut down its supercomputer center due to a financial crunch, leaving UK researchers scrambling to find access to a supercomputer anywhere in the world.

Despite it's massive power, Computing Center Director Jay Boisseau told the Austin-American Statesman he thinks Ranger's useful life may be almost over in four years.

That's progress.