Trinity scientist helps build latest supercomputer

1 Dec 2003

A Trinity College Dublin scientist is a member of the project team charged with building the world’s next-generation supercomputer. The machine, a prototype of which was demonstrated at the Supercomputing show in the US earlier this month, is expected to be 10 times more powerful that the world’s current fastest supercomputer when it is completed at the end of 2004.

Professor Jim Sexton heads the Trinity Centre for High Performance Computing (TCHPC) that is one of only two European university labs to be research partners on the project known as Blue Gene. For the past two summers, Sexton has served as a visiting scientist at IBM’s main Watson Laboratory in New York where he has worked in the area of testing, validation and modifying the core algorithms that underpin the machine’s operating system.

BlueGene is a joint project by IBM in partnership with what is known as the ‘Tri-Labs’ – the three major national science institutes in the US – and a range of smaller research partners worldwide. The project falls under the Tri-Labs’ Asci (Advanced Supercomputing Initiative) programme that involves building computers for applications in areas such as space exploration and defence. When completed, Blue Gene will be housed in the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

“BlueGene is eventually going to have 65,000 computer nodes in it,” explained Sexton. “It’s currently up to 512 processors at this point and it’s probably running at one two-hundredth [ie, 0.5pc] of the final speed of the machine. Even at that it’s coming in at a performance of 1.5 teraflops so if you multiply that by 200 you get it up to somewhere between 200 and 400 teraflops – so it will be 10 times bigger than anything else in the world.”

The world’s current largest supercomputer – the Earth Simulator in Japan – has an output of 35 teraflops (35 trillion operations per second). The Blue Gene prototype on show at Supercomputing has a peak speed of 1.5 teraflops, which already makes it the 75th most powerful supercomputer in the world though it is no bigger than a 30-inch television. Although the final Blue Gene machine will be 128 times larger, occupying 64 full computer racks, it will still be significantly more compact than today’s supercomputers.

Sexton continued: “It’s just incredible stuff and it’s potentially going to be a revolution in terms of computing because it’s low cost and it’s low power which is actually a big issue for computers these days. Today if you buy a rack of 32 or 64 PCs and hook them together the amount of power you need is incredible and therefore a major cost. The new computer will consume just one-tenth as much power as the computers now so you’re getting 10 times the performance for the same power.”

The final design of the supercomputer has been agreed and it is about to enter the production phase, which itself will pose significant technical challenges, Sexton noted. “How to you build 65,000 things and make sure they’re all working together?”

Once built, the processing power of BlueGene will be applied to a variety of scientific problems, but Sexton believes that one in particular stands out. “The big challenge over the next few years is going to be computational biology or nanoscience – really trying to understand what’s going on inside a molecule or protein.”

By Brian Skelly