IBM increases supercomputer dominance

IBM's supercomputers continue to be the fastest in the world, according to the latest Top500 list of the speediest machines released Wednesday. The company snagged six of the top 10 spots, including the coveted number one and two placings while widening the performance gap between its machines and those of its competitors.

The list was to be announced at the International Supercomputing Conference in Heidelberg, Germany.

For the second time, IBM's BlueGene/L System at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories in Livermore, California, was the fastest supercomputer in the world. The machine also held pole position on the previous Top500 issued in November of last year. BlueGene/L doubled its performance over the past six months to reach a new Linpack benchmark performance of 136.8 teraflops or one trillion floating point operations per second, nearly double the 70.72 teraflops recorded on November's list. According to Dave Turek, IBM vice president for Deep Computing, the company expects the system to again double in size over the summer up to between 270 and 280 teraflops.

In the number two position was another IBM BlueGene offering, the Watson Blue Gene (WBG) system, which IBM installed at its Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown, New York, last week. WBG had a benchmarked performance of 91.2 teraflops and is being used by IBM to conduct scientific and business research.

While BlueGene's speed and performance have been important to its rapid adoption, the supercomputer's small form factor has also proved attractive to customers, according to Stacey Quandt, IT analyst at Quandt Analytics, based in Santa Clara, California. She also emphasized the continuing adoption of the Linux operating system -- eight of the top 10 supercomputers ran on Linux -- along with an increase in the number of blade systems from IBM.

Silicon Graphics's (SGI's) Columbia system at the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) Ames Research Center in Moffet Field, California, was in third position with 51.87 teraflops. In fourth position was the previous number one fastest supercomputer prior to BlueGene/L, NEC's Earth Simulator in Yokohama, Japan, with a Linpack benchmark performance of 35.86 teraflops.

The fastest supercomputer in Europe nabbed the number five spot, an IBM machine, the MareNostrum cluster at the Barcelona Supercomputer Center in Spain, with a performance of 27.91 teraflops. Just behind it was another BlueGene owned by Astron and run at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands with a performance of 27.45 teraflops. "The biggest surprise for us is the dominance of BlueGene at the very top end of the list," said IBM's Turek. He also pointed to MareNostrum's success as indicative of "a shift in the center of gravity outwards" through Europe away from the traditional supercomputer leaders Germany, France and the U.K.

IBM's success appeared to be at Hewlett-Packard's (HP's) expense. Overall, 51.8 percent of the supercomputers on the Top500 list were IBM machines, up from 43.4 percent in November. HP still held second position, but lost some ground, with its share of supercomputers on the list falling to 26.2 percent compared to 34.8 percent in November. SGI stayed in third position with its share up somewhat to 4.8 percent versus 3.8 percent in November. Dell also improved its standing in fourth place, with its share growing to 4.2 percent versus 2.8 percent in November. NEC had fifth position in November with 2.4 percent, but could only muster 1.6 percent putting it in sixth place, while Cray Inc. garnered the fifth place this time around with a 3.2 percent share up from November's 1.8 percent when it was in seventh position. In terms of installed performance, IBM had a 57.9 percent share followed by HP with 13.3 percent and SGI with 7.45 percent.

"The first thing to recognize is that there's a certain ebb and flow in the Top500 list" as companies roll out new supercomputers to customers, said Ed Turkel, product marketing manager for HP's high performance computing (HPC) division. "If you look at where the high performance computer market is growing, it's not in capacity systems, it's at the bottom of the market" where servers sell for US$250,000 and below.

Turkel cited recent figures from market research company IDC that gave HP 34 percent of HPC revenue for the first quarter of this year, five points ahead of IBM. "(IBM's) BlueGene systems are a very, very small part of a very, very small part of the HPC market," he added.

There was a substantial shake-up in the Top500 list with half of the top ten systems from November being displaced by newly installed systems and the last 201 systems from the November list being too small to be listed anymore.

Intel's processors powered 333 systems on the list. The company's Pentium 4 was used in 175 supercomputers and its Itanium 2 was in 79 of the systems. IBM's Power chips were used in 77 of the machines, while Intel's Xeon Extended Memory 64 Technology (EM64T) was used in 76 of the computers. HP's PA Risc processors were used in 36 systems and Advanced Micro Devices's Opteron in 25 systems.

In global terms, the U.S. is still by far away and the market leader with 294 of the top 500 supercomputers up from 274 in November. Japan had 23 systems, while systems elsewhere in Asia accounted for 58 supercomputers. In Europe, which had 114 of the fastest supercomputers, Germany now has the most systems, 40 compared to U.K.'s 32. Six months ago the situation was reversed with the U.K. as number one in Europe with 42 systems compared to Germany's 35 systems.

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