Top 500 List Means Plenty of Bragging Rights

The 31st edition of the TOP500 list of supercomputers was released today at the International Supercomputing Conference in Dresden, Germany, and IBM, AMD and Intel have a lot of bragging rights. The list, issued twice a year since 1993, features some big shifts and interesting trends in supercomputing.

The biggest news is that Blue Gene/L, the supercomputer based at Lawrence Livermore Labs and run by the Department of Energy, has finally relinquished the top spot after leading the pack for four years.

It’s been beaten by another IBM behemoth, named Roadrunner, which just this month came online at the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory. Roadrunner is the first computer to break the petaflop barrier.

Blue Gene/L uses PowerPC chips, while Roadrunner uses a combination of AMD Quad Core Opterons and IBM’s Cell Broadband Engine, the processor used in the innovative, though still-struggling PlayStation 3 from Sony.

Blue Gene/L comes in at number two and another Blue Gene system, at the Argonne National Laboratory, comes in at number three. Number four is another Opteron-based system and the highest-ranking system from Sun Microsystems, which only has three on the list. The company announced at the ISC show it was expanding its range of HPC products, which are sold under the Constellation brand name.

“Sun’s top 5 showing in the Top 500 list spotlights the power of openness in HPC. Working with TACC, we’ve delivered the highest ranking system built on an open architecture and open platforms and made it possible for customers the world over to take advantage of the power of superscale technologies in their own departments,” said John Fowler, executive vice president of the Systems Group at Sun in a statement.

Ranger, the supercomputer built by Sun at the University of Texas at Austin, would have been number one on the previous list, released in November 2007. That shows how quickly things change. When Blue Gene/L took the lead in November 2004, its peak performance was 70.7 teraflops. That would rank it at #23 on today’s list. Thanks to continuous expansion, its peak performance is now 596 teraflops.

IBM (NYSE: IBM) still rules the list, with 210 of the 500 systems from Big Blue. HP (NYSE: HPQ) is second with 183 systems (36.6 percent), all of them Xeon or Itanium-based. Dell is third with 27 systems, SGI fourth with 22 and Cray is fifth with 16.

Page 2: Blades reach the cutting edge

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Blades reach the cutting edge of high end systems.

Two-thirds of the systems on the list are blade systems , which reflects a growing interest in the technology.

“The rapid adoption of HP BladeSystem technology, including the HP BL2x220C, on the TOP500 supercomputer list, clearly reflects HP’s ability to deliver customers computing technology optimized for large scale-out and emerging cloud computing environments,” said Christine Martino, vice president and general manager of the Scalable Computing Infrastructure unit at HP in a statement.

Quad-core processors have rapidly taken over the list from dual core, with 283 of the 500 systems using quad-core, including the entire top 10. Only 11 systems on this list are single-core. Three systems use Cell, which has nine cores.

More than ever, the x86 architecture rules the list. Just four years ago, 45 percent of the machines were IA-32-based. As 32-bit has died off, 64-bit architectures have taken over. Intel’s EM64T, the Xeon architecture, is in 356 of the systems, almost three-fourths of the list. Add the 16 IA-64 Itanium systems and 55 AMD x86_64 systems and that’s 427 servers, or 85 percent of the total.

AMD (NYSE: AMD) has some bragging rights, but also some work to do. It owns the number 1, 4, 5, 12, 16, and 20 positions with its Quad Core Opteron, compared to four of the top 20 going to Intel (NASDAQ: INTC). But it’s lost ground, too. It had 108 of the top 500 a year ago, then fell to 79 on the November 2007 list, and now holds just 55 of the top 500.

Margaret Lewis, director of commercial solutions for AMD, wasn’t surprised and attributed it to the tardiness of Barcelona. “What you see is, this is a community that always goes for the fastest, newest, best,” she told InternetNews.com. “You can see that with our competitor beating us with getting quad core out. What that means is it will be interesting to see how this list looks in November.”

More massive systems are on the horizon, including Pleiades, the new NASA supercomputer being built by SGI and Intel, which will have one petaflop of performance by the time it’s fully up and running this year.

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