NASA-SGI Supercomputer: Tops in Speed and Research

While its 20 clustered Linux systems joining more than 10,000 Intel Itanium2 processors may put it at the top of the speed list, the scientists whohave access to the new “Columbia” supercomputer at the NASA Ames AdvancedSupercomputing facilities tout the amazing research abilities of the supersystem, which they say cuts more than a year’s worth of work down to days.

Columbia, named in honor of the Space Shuttle Columbia crew and craftlost in 2003, will take National Aeronautics and Space Administration(NASA), National Science Foundation (NSF), and eventually other researchers,to new heights, where hurricanes’ paths can be predicted more quickly andaccurately, global climate and oceanic conditions can be measured, and superphysics that involves modeling the universe and the birth of stars can beperformed.

“It’s one hell of a system,” said Columbia project manager Bill Thigpen,who told TechNewsWorld the system is being submitted for a top spot on theupcoming Top500 Supercomputer list due next month. Thigpen said IBM oranother organization may build a bigger system to take the top spot on thespeed list, but the capabilities of Columbia — used by scientistswhile being constructed — and access for scientists make the machine significantbeyond its speed.

“I would say in terms of research, it’s really the biggest,” Thigpensaid.

Super Asset

Thigpen said the estimated US$50 million Columbia system, an integratedcluster of 20 Silicon Graphics Altix 512-processor systems, was a”national asset.”

“Scientists throughout NASA will have access, and quite a number have hadaccess since we started bringing it on,” Thigpen said, boasting of sharedmemory among Columbia’s 10,240 Itanium 2 processors.

Thigpen added that while Columbia is already serving a broad spectrum ofdifferent scientific studies, the supercomputer will also be used by the NSFand be available to other researchers on a proposal basis.

More and More Power

Thigpen said the reason for the creation of the new super system — whichachieved unprecedented, sustained performance of 42.7 trillion calculationsper second (teraflops) — was demand from scientists who wanted more power.

“The users needed more than the system we had previously,” he said. “Itis pretty nice to be in a position where the users on a system this new wantmore and more time on it.”

Thigpen also said many of the major accomplishments in research –whether on Earth’s climate, space research or other area — come fromsustained access and use of a supercomputer system.

“The breakthroughs happen with large amounts of [supercomputing]capability [as opposed to just] 10 hours or 20 hours,” Thigpen said.

At a Price

Bill Claybrook, industry analyst and president of New River MarketingResearch, told TechNewsWorld that despite few offerings to mainstreamenterprises, Columbia creator SGI is significant in supercomputing.

“There is a small number of research organizations and so forth that willbuy these machines,” Claybrook said. He noted that SGI has been experiencingfinancial difficulties.

“The one thing they do have is a good reputation in high-performancecomputing.”

Claybrook blamed SGI’s reliance on Intel’s Itanium 2 processor, whichdrives prices higher than other systems relying on other silicon, such asAMD’s Opteron.

“They’re stuck in that [Itanium 2] market, which leads to even higherprices.”

While You Wait

Nevertheless, SGI boasted of the 20-system cluster, indicating that Columbiatopped the current speed king — Japan’s Earth simulator at 35.86 teraflopsand IBM’s Blue Gene/L at 36.01 teraflops — hitting the 42.7 teraflops usingonly 16 of the cluster’s 20 installed systems.

Columbia coordinators and backers also indicated that the system wasassembled in less than four months’ time and was available toresearchers throughout installation.

“In fact, scientists from NASA centers and universities throughout theU.S. used new Altix systems within days after they arrived at NASA,” SGIsaid in a press release.

Thigpen told TechNewsWorld the agency had been providing access toColumbia to “targeted groups” of researchers as systems were brought in.

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