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BlueGene sneaks past Earth Simulator

Supercomputer chart officially out of date

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The Earth Simulator, an NEC supercomputer, is surpassed, at last. IBM announced yesterday that its Blue Gene/L supercomputer had achieved a sustained performance of 36.01 teraflops, or 36.01 trillion floating point calculations per second. Earth Simulator's highest recorded performance is 35.86 teraflops.

The margin by which Blue Gene/L overtook the Earth Simulator is small, but the machine is much smaller, and more efficient to run, IBM says. Blue Gene/L's footprint is one per cent that of the Earth Simulator, and its power demands are just 3.6 per cent of the NEC supercomputer.

David Turek, vice president for deep computing at IBM, says the machine is the beginning of a new era in supercomputing. BlueGene/L is built from standardised components, a departure from IBM's traditional, proprietary, DeepBlue technology. A prototype was ranked fourth in the world, until it was bested by another IBM machine, delivered to the US military.

This month, Japanese research laboratory AIST announced it had ordered a BlueGene/L supercomputer for use in its protein research.

A spokesman for NEC said he was not worried that IBM has batted the Earth simulator aside. He told The Register: "You have to remember that the Earth simulator has a peak performance of 40 teraflops, but that its actual operating performance is 90 per cent of that - just under 36 teraflops. The IBM machine is not as efficient."

Supercomputers are rated in two categories: their theoretical peak performance, and their recorded maximum performance. The latter determines their position on the Top 500 list of super computers, but the former sheds light on operational efficiency.

The NEC spokesman also reiterated statements made to the press this summer, that NEC is working on a new technology that will surpass its SX-6 supercomputer, but he could not say when it will launch.

Nonetheless, it is worth noting that the prototype on which IBM recorded its 36.01 teraflop score was built from 16,000 processors. A bigger version, the size of half a tennis court, with 130,000 processors on board, will be built for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

It will have a peak performance of 360 teraflops, and scientists will use the machine to study the degradation of America's nuclear stockpile. ®

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