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'Titan' falls: Today's top supercomputer is owned by China, powered by Intel

Mark Hachman | June 18, 2013
The crown for the fastest supercomputer on the planet is now owned by China. The Milky Way-2 supercomputer is now twice as fast as anything else on the planet.

Coming in the third spot is the DOE Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Sequoia, an IBM BlueGene/Q system that achieved 17.17 petaflops on the Linpack benchmark using 1.5 million cores. Overall, four IBM BlueGene systems made the top 10 list.

Other interesting tidbits about this edition of the Top500: Twenty-six petaflop systems are now on the list, up from 23 six months ago. Eighty-eight percent of the systems use processors of six or more cores, and 80 percent of the systems use Intel processors. The total combined performance of all 500 systems is 223 petaflops, up from 162 petaflops six months ago.

New Intel chips on the way
Intel's Xeon processor is the most widely used processor on the list, and powered about 75 percent of the systems in November, with a slight increase in the June list. Intel's next challenge is to entice supercomputer designers to add in so-called accelerators or GPUs, normally used to render graphics on a PC or notebook.

Inside of a supercomputer, however, specialized versions of those same chips can be reprogrammed to quickly perform specialized functions over and over again — the same calculations that can be at the heart of a specialized simulation. These optimized chips, like the Intel Xeon Phi, the Nvidia "Kepler" cores and others, can significantly improve performance for little additional electrical power, the companies say.

The problem is that those coprocessors have traditionally required a different programming model than the general CPUs require, which has alienated some. Today, users are more accustomed to using "pools" of storage and microprocessors which software ropes together in the aggregate.

Intel Xeon Phi
INTEL.The Intel Xeon Phi coprocessor.

Intel's latest Xeon Phi chips use what Hadra called a "neo-heterogenous" model, where the architectures of the chip may be slightly different, but programmers can use a single software tool to program them. That model is being used in the Milky Way-2, Hadra said.

Intel on Monday unveiled five new Xeon Phi coprocessors: the 7120P and the 7120X for the highest of the HPCs; the 3120P and 3120A for midrange systems, and the new 5120D for high-density form factors.

Hadra also said that the "Knights Landing" architecture underpinning the Xeon Phi would eventually be manufactured in the cutting-edge 14-nm process. However, Intel did not say exactly when the 14-nm version would be released, but that the process will be in volume at that point in time. It will be available both as a coprocessor, but also as a standalone CPU much like a Xeon processor, he said.

Is the Top500 the right list?
Although the Top500 has been the granddaddy of supercomputer rankings, some have questioned whether that list really represents "true" supercomputer performance. Bill Kramer, deputy project director for the "Blue Waters" supercomputer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the  U. of Illinois, has said previously that the Linpack benchmark used to measure the performance of the systems on the list is both out-of-date and essentially deceiving.


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