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29 Sep 04. The United States on Wednesday reclaimed the lead in global supercomputing more than two years after Japan’s Earth Simulator shook the computing world by claiming the top spot.

International Business Machines announced that Blue Gene/L, a computer being built for the Lawrence Livermore Labratory in California, had surpassed the Earth Simulator’s performance in standard tests of processing power.

Dave Turek, vice-president of Deep Computing at IBM, predicted that Blue Gene/L would go on to smash its 36 teraflop (36 thousand billion calculations a second) record. “The full system is scheduled for delivery next May. We are confident that 360 teraflop performance will be achieved shortly thereafter.”

In 2002 news of the Earth Simulator’s 35.86 teraflop performance sparked a debate in the US scientific community. The White House formed a task force to recommend strategies for revitalisation of supercomputer research amid fears that the US was losing ground.IBM has invested about $100m over five years in Blue Gene/L and plans to use the machines as the model for a new generation of commercial supercomputers. Blue Gene/L itself will be used by scientists from around the world to work on problems in fields ranging from genetics to astronomy.

Computer scientists said Blue Gene’s design was as significant as its performance.

Blue Gene is about one hundredth the size of the Earth Simulator, covering 320 sq ft. IBM has used relatively slow processors for the supercomputer, reducing the amount of heat it generates and the power it consumes. Blue Gene is built from processors running at 700Mhz, compared with 3Ghz for the latest generation of processors that power personal computers. Last month Intel, which dominates the market for PC processors, said its future processor designs would also focus less on speed.

Horst Simon, director of the National Energy Research Supercomputing Center, said: “It is intriguing that within a few weeks we’ve had the Intel announcement and now the IBM announcement. We have reached the first part of the end of Moore’s law.” Moore’s law states that the number of transistors on silicon chips will double every two years due to increased miniaturisation.

However, chipmakers have found that transistors are so small that they no longer work efficiently at high speeds. This has led to an exponential increase in power consumption relative to processor power.

Chip designers are instead focusing on “multicore” designs that put two or more slower processors on a single chip an approach taken by Blue Gene.However, Mr Turek warned that Blue Gene would not suit all types of scientific application:

“For all I know we’ve just built the world’s greatest computer animation system. The next few months will be about working with users to find out more about exactly what we have created here.” (Source: FT)

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