18 Jun 2012

Supercomputer milestone for IBM’s Sequoia

A computer that will form a key part of President Obama’s nuclear security agenda is ranked the most powerful computing system on the list of the world’s fastest supercomputers.

In what has been described as a quantum leap for computing power, IBM‘s latest machine has been crowned the fastest on the planet.

The Sequoia, developed for the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), supplants Fujitsu’s K-computer at the top of the Top500 list that meaures supercomputer performance.

The Sequoia is capable of performing roughly the same number of operations per second as 10 million mobile phones put together.

The machine is being used to keep an eye on America’s ageing nuclear missile stocks, performing the complex calculations needed to keep the weapons safe.

But Sequioia has also become the winner in a global contest between computer manufacturers to see who can make the fastest machine. Victory is decided by who can perform the most Flops (floating point operations per second) – a measure of how many calculations the machine can do.

The earliest computers were capable of only a few hundred thousand, but there has been an exponential growth since the birth of supercomputers, and the latest competitors can perform feats unthinkable to early pioneers of the technology.

IBM’s machine runs at 16 petaflops – a thousand million millon calculations per second. As such, it is a step-change from the Fujitsu’s K computer, which managed eight petaflops.

Keeping an eye on America’s missiles

Among all the geeky excitement around today’s announcement, it’s easy to miss a peculiar irony, writes Channel 4 News Technology Producer Geoff White. The very first supercomputers were put to use at the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico, birthplace of the nuclear bomb, during the height of the cold war.

Massive computing power was needed to make the precise calculations on which nuclear energy relied – along with other developments in the emerging fields of space, energy and computing technology.

Firms such as Cray created the machines to do the job. They also had a certain panache – the Cray-1, for example, is an elegant cylinder surrounded by an upholstered bench seat. But this was no hollow triumph of form over function. In fact the cylindrical design minimised the amount of cable needed to connect its components and so increased its speed.

Eventually, America’s nuclear arms effort petered out, and 40 years later the weapons are languishing in bunkers facing decommissioning. But they are still potentially deadly, and monitoring their status is a vital and intricate task – one which requires a supercomputer. IBM’s Sequoia does exactly that – keeping an eye on America’s missiles for National Nuclear Security Administration.

As computer engineers push the boundaries of the possible, it’s ironic that the world’s fastest machine is now deployed to nullify weapons made possible by the very first supercomputer technology.

International competition

Computing power has become an international competition, and China recently logged its first winner, the Tianhe-1, which managed 2.5 petaflops two years ago.

Most of these supercomputers are used for government-level work – for example, creating computer simulations of environmental or financial scenarios. But the technology will eventually filter down to consumers, with experts predicting smaller, lighter gadgets, because manufacturers will be able to achieve the same results with smaller components.

Colin Parris, general manager at IBM Power Systems, said the improvements in affordability, performance, efficiency and size that Sequoia delivers would help to attract a broader set of commercial customers.

“With supercomputers capable of 16 sustained petaflops, our ability to affect strategic change in areas like life sciences, public safety, energy and transportation that make our world smarter is greater than ever,” he said.

IBM’s partnership with the NNSA and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has produced six systems that have been ranked among the world’s most powerful computers.

The previous top ranking machine the K computer, which was developed for the Japanese government, became number one in June 2011 and retained its ranking for a second term in November. It has now slipped down to number two in the Top500 behind Sequoia.

But it is unlikely the contest will end there. The current rate of growth in computer power means we should be in the territory of exaflops – computers capable of carrying out a million million million calculations a second.