Japan takes world's fastest supercomputer title

A supercomputer used to analyze global climate change at a Japanese government research institute has stolen the title of fastest computer in the world from a machine at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in the U.S.

The vector supercomputer built by NEC Corp. has almost five times the performance of the LLNL machine, according to University of Tennessee computer scientist Jack Dongarra, who compiles an authoritative ranking of the top 500 supercomputers around the world. In a standard benchmark test, it achieved a rating of 35.6T flops (one trillion floating point operations per second).

"If we look at the previous Top 500 list that was published in November, the Earth Simulator is faster than the sum of the first 18 machines," said Dongarra in an e-mail response to a reporter's questions.

The computer was jointly developed by NEC and a team of engineers from the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA), the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute and Japan Marine Science and Technology Center, at a price of around ¥50 billion (US$385 million) as part of a project that began in 1997.

The Earth Simulator consists of 640 processing nodes, each of which contains eight processors with a peak performance of 8G flops per processor. That gives the machine a theoretical maximum performance of 40T flops and so the 35.6T flops achieved represents 87.2 percent of peak performance. Each node has 16G bytes of main memory for a total of 10T bytes of memory across the entire system and it runs NEC's Super-UX Unix operating system.

The processing nodes sit around a huge interconnection network running at 12.3G Bps (bytes per second) which occupies 65 cabinets at the center of the 50-meter-by-65-meter room that houses the computer. Around the edge of the room are cabinets housing disks and tape cartridges and an entire floor underneath the computer is used to house an air-conditioning system to keep the machine cool.

It was delivered to the Yokohama Institute for Earth Sciences in March this year and is being used to create computer models for climate change simulations. A virtual planet earth exists within the system and data is transferred from satellites, buoys and other weather and climate data sources to help analyze the changing global climate and phenomena like El Niño, global warming, atmospheric and marine pollution and torrential rainfall.

Hitting the top spot in the ranking is all the more sweeter for NEC because, for several years, it was effectively banned from selling supercomputers in the U.S. After it bid in 1996 to supply a supercomputer to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, Cray Inc. filed a complaint alleging dumping -- a fight NEC took all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and ultimately lost. The result was a 454 percent duty imposed on its machines that effectively shut it out of the market until last year, when the duties were removed.

The Japanese machine looks set to hold on to the title for some time, although the U.S. may soon narrow the gap.

In mid-2000 the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) awarded a $200 million contract to Compaq Computer Corp. to build a machine for the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) that will have a peak performance of 30T flops and 12T bytes of memory. The machine, which will be used to conduct simulated nuclear weapons tests, is part of the NNSA's Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI) and will be called the ASCI-Q. It is expected to be in operation later this year.

The LLNL computer that has been leading Dongarra's Top 500 ranking was also developed as part of the same program. Called ASCI-White, the machine was built by IBM Corp. Three other ASCI computers are in the top ten: ASCI-Red, a 3T flops machine at Sandia National Labs built by Intel Corp.; ASCI Blue Pacific, a 3T flops computer at LLNL built by IBM Corp.; and ASCI Blue Mountain, a 3T flops machine at LANL built by Silicon Graphics Inc.

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