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Sun v IBM in battle of the supercomputers

AMD chosen ahead of Intel in quad-core race

As Sun Microsystems prepares to demonstrate a new high-performance computer today at a technology conference in Germany, it hopes that quad-core processors from AMD that will power the computer arrive on time to deliver one of the machines to its first customer.

Sun is going to introduce its Constellation system at the International Supercomputing Conference in Dresden, at which other supercomputer makers are gathering before the release of a twice-yearly list of the world's Top 500 supercomputers tomorrow.

IBM, whose Blue Gene/L supercomputer was number one in a November 2006 Top 500 list based on system performance, will introduce what it says is a still faster Blue Gene/P.

Sun chose the AMD Opteron quad-core chip, code-named Barcelona, over rival Intel 's quad-core Xeon 5300 chip, because it believes AMD's will be "the fastest chip on the market this year”, said Andreas Bechtolsheim, chief architect and senior vice president of the systems group at Sun. (See: First AMD quad-core 'Barcelona' systems unveiled.)

"We are still hopeful that they will deliver the chips on time." Sun also hopes Constellation can be out in time to be considered for the November Top 500 list.

AMD's stock was downgraded on June 6 by some investment analysts who questioned the chipmaker's ability to deliver Barcelona on time. But AMD spokesman Phil Hughes said yesterday that "we're still on track" for a Barcelona launch in the third quarter.

Constellation is targeting IBM, which held an industry-leading 47.8 percent market share on the earlier Top 500 list, because its Blue Gene line is "the fastest machine out there”, Bechtolsheim acknowledged. But Sun's Constellation is built with open industry standard components, such as x64 processors, Sun blade servers, Sun Fire x4500 storage, and open-source Solaris or Linux operating system software, while IBM's Blue Gene is built from custom-made components.

"Our observation is that industry standard open architecture has caught up with special-purpose computers. That's what we really mean to say here," Bechtolsheim said. Sun believes that building a supercomputer from custom parts takes too much time and costs too much money to build.

But building a custom machine may allow IBM to pull further ahead of the rest of the field. IBM claims in a news release that the coming Blue Gene/P has triple the performance of version L, including a potential top processing speed of 3 petaflops (P flops).

A petaflop is 1,000 trillion flops (floating-point operations per second), a measure of how many computer calculations can be made in that time.

Sun says the Constellation features a total 131,072 processor cores, can operate at up to 1.08 petaflops, has 100 terabytes of memory, and an input-output (I/O) speed (the speed at which data can be moved in and out of the central processing unit) of 3 terabytes per second. A terabyte is 1 trillion bytes.

The Top 500 supercomputers list, compiled by university researchers in the US and Germany, ranks supercomputers that are usually operated in government or university research centres in the US, Europe and Asia.

Sun is in the process of building a Constellation supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computer Center (TACC) at the University of Texas in Austin. The TACC received a $59m grant from the US National Science Foundation in 2006 to build the supercomputer.


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