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NEC stamps on IBM in übercomputer race

Japan takes world's fastest supercomputer title by a mile

A supercomputer used to analyse global climate change at a Japanese government research institute has stolen the title of fastest computer in the world from an IBM machine at the LLNL (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) in the US.

The vector supercomputer built by NEC has almost five times the performance of the LLNL machine, according to University of Tennessee computer scientist Jack Dongarra, who compiles an authoritative ranking of the Top 500 supercomputers around the world. In a standard benchmark test, it achieved a rating of 35.6Tf (teraflops, or one trillion floating-point operations per second).

"If we look at the previous Top 500 list that was published in November, the Earth Simulator is faster than the sum of the first 18 machines," said Dongarra.

The computer was jointly developed by NEC and a team of engineers from Nasda, (the National Space Development Agency of Japan), the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute and Japan Marine Science and Technology Centre, at a price of more than £265m as part of a project that began in 1997.

The Earth Simulator consists of 640 processing nodes, each of which contains eight processors with a peak performance of 8Gf (gigaflops) per processor. That gives the machine a theoretical maximum performance of 40Tf, so the 35.6Tf achieved represents 87.2 percent of peak performance. Each node has 16GB of main memory for a total of 10TB (terabytes) of memory across the entire system and it runs NEC's Super-UX Unix operating system.

The processing nodes sit around a huge interconnection network running at 12.3GBps (gigabytes per second) which occupies 65 cabinets at the centre of the 50x65m room that houses the computer. Around the edge of the room are cabinets housing disks and tape cartridges and an entire floor underneath the computer is used to house an air-conditioning system to keep the machine cool.

It was delivered to the Yokohama Institute for Earth Sciences in March this year and is being used to create computer models for climate change simulations. A virtual planet Earth exists within the system and data is transferred from satellites, buoys and other weather and climate data sources to help analyse the changing global climate and phenomena like El Niño, global warming, atmospheric and marine pollution and torrential rainfall.

Hitting the top spot in the ranking is all the sweeter for NEC because, for several years, it was effectively banned from selling supercomputers in the US.

After it bid in 1996 to supply a supercomputer to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, Cray filed a complaint alleging dumping — a fight NEC took all the way to the US Supreme Court and ultimately lost. The result was a 454 percent duty imposed on its machines that effectively shut it out of the market until last year, when the duties were removed.


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