Hawking's big-bang team harness SGI super power

A precise science demands big hardware

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Cambridge University cosmologists working with physicist Stephen Hawking are getting their first real taste of supercomputing power as they upgrade to Silicon Graphics' Altix UV parallel supers.

The UK Computational Cosmology Consortium, which was established in 1997 by Hawking to probe the structure of the universe in the immediate wake of the hot Big Bang, now has over 30 researchers from ten different universities around the country.

COSMOS, as the consortium and its systems are both known, has been an SGI customer since day one, starting out with a 32-processor Origin 2000 parallel system back in 1997 when that was still pretty cool iron.

The operation upgraded through the Origin MIPS/Irix line and eventually moved to the Linux-Itanium Altix 3700 systems from SGI in 2003. The last upgrade that COSMOS did back in September 2007 was to a 152-core Altix 4700 shared memory system using 1.6GHz, dual-core Itanium 2 processors and equipped with 456GB of shared memory and 25TB of storage.

This is an embarrassingly small supercomputer for such a distinguished physicist and one that should have, along with his long-time partner, Roger Penrose, received a Nobel Prize in Physics.

Like Einstein, Hawking has done his best work using the wetware that nature gave him, but concedes that at this point, cosmological research needs a less blunt instrument than the human brain.

"Recent progress towards a complete understanding of the universe has been impressive, but many puzzles remain," Hawking said in a statement accompanying the Altix UV news. "Cosmology is now a precise science, and we need supercomputers to calculate what our theories of the early universe predict and test them against observations of the present universe."

To that end, COSMOS is getting a three-rack Altix UV 1000 machine, code-named UltraViolet by SGI, that has just shy of 1,000 cores and a little over 2TB of shared memory. The idea is to simulate the conditions at the very beginning of the Big Bang, including the background radiation in the microwave part of the spectrum and the initial structure of the hot, dense universe, and then see how fast-forwarded simulations compare to the actual universe we observe. You can see the scope of the Hawking team's research here.

This Altix UV machine being installed at COSMOS will span three racks, including room for storage. COSMOS and SGI did not divulge the teraflops rating on this machine, but a fully loaded Altix UV 1000 with 2,048 cores - that's 256 of the eight-core Xeon 7500 processors from Intel - is rated at 18.5 teraflops, with a maximum of 16TB of shared memory.

This basic Altix UV processing building block takes up four racks by itself. These four-rack blade modules can be interlinked to create petaflops-scale parallel supers, but not with a single shared memory space spanning all of the blades.

If you do the math, it looks like COSMOS is getting an Altix UV machine that should be rated at nine teraflops. The prior Altix 4700 machine was rated at 937 gigaflops doing double-precision floating point math - something you can get out of two Nvidia or ATI graphics cards these days. While the new box is not exactly a speed demon, with several petaflops-class machines already installed around the world - that's a lot more oomph than COSMOS had.

COSMOS could have created a custom cluster using a mix of x64 and GPU technologies, as many labs are starting to do as they bump up against thermal, budget, and space limitations in their data centers.

But by staying with the Altix UV all that COSMOS has to do is port its code from Itanium to x64 processors and recompile it on the new machine. The Altix UV architecture does allow for GPUs to be plugged into server blades if that helps boost performance for particular workloads.

SGI says that as the COSMOS team needs more oomph, they plan to add more Xeon 7500 processors at this point. ®

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