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BlueGene turns Top500 blue

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The latest list of the fastest supercomputers on the planet has arrived and delivered unusually controversial results.

At first glance, IBM and Intel come out as the big winners on the June list of the Top 500 systems unveiled today in Germany. IBM's incredible success, however, raises some questions about just how effective the Linpack benchmark used to measure the boxes is. In particular, IBM's surging BlueGene systems make one wonder how well machines tuned for scientific workloads can translate into big business computers.

In the new list, BlueGene systems from IBM own 5 of the top 10 spots, including the first place machine at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Overall, IBM grabbed 52 per cent of the entire Top 500 list with 259 systems comprised of BlueGene, Power 5 and 4 and Xeon servers. Intel also surged as Xeon-based boxed accounted for 254 of the spots and Itanium systems grabbed another 79 slots.

Unlike the more standard Power and Xeon systems, the BlueGene boxes use thousands of 700MHz PowerPC chips to crank through highly threaded scientific workloads like Linpack. This approach of using low-power chips is great for the labs and IBM's PR machine but could well undermine the importance once attached to the Top 500 list.

"If the Top500 list is going to become all about a single type of high performance architecture, it's going to inevitably become less relevant," said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff.

IBM has put a lot of focus on scientific computing, knowing that positive reports from the labs often turn into more lucrative business computer sales. This approach has worked well for IBM because it does a fine job of producing top quality machines and because its more standard Power processors have been embraced by both the scientific and enterprise Unix/Linux crowds. This trend may end with BlueGene though. "Commercial clustering needs are in areas like business intelligence that often involve large memory spaces and lots of data movement - which doesn't fit with BlueGene at all," Haff said. "I suppose you could imagine a lightweight enough BlueGene doing video rendering or something like that, if the price were right."

Many computer makers and even the individuals that run the Top 500 list have entertained the idea of using a more comprehensive benchmark than Linpack. These things, however, take time.

For its part, Intel reckons things are just fine with the Top 500 rankings.

"If you look at the overall list, there are a lot of systems on there using standards-based processors to do real work," said an Intel spokesman. "I don't think a couple results in the top ten lessen the impact of the list at all."

Overall, the top performers were the usual suspects - IBM, HP, SGI and Cray. The only real surprise was the fall of Opteron, dropping from 31 systems to 25.

Interested types can slice and dice the new Top 500 rankings anyway they like here. ®

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