U.S. Reclaims Supercomputing Crown With World’s Fastest Machine

By Chelsea Whyte on June 18, 2012 7:23 PM EDT

Sequoia Supercomputer
The 96-rack Sequoia, an IBM supercomputer, was named No. 1 on the TOP500 List, which ranks the world's fastest supercomputers. (Photo: Lawrence Livermore National La)

The United States is number one, at least when it comes to supercomputing power. The U.S. once again has the fastest supercomputer in the world - the Department of Energy's Sequoia supercomputer, located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California.

Since 2009, the TOP500 list (which ranks the speed of supercomputers around the globe) has been dominated by Asian machines, but America takes the top spot once again this year. Sequoia is an IBM BlueGene/Q system with 1.57 million processor cores that can carry out 16.32 quadrillion calculations per second (or 16.32 petaflops, as they're called in data-speak).

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The supercomputer is actually a highly interconnected cluster of 1,572,864 processors, or cores, mounted on 98,304 "compute nodes," or boards, that are arranged on a series of 96 standing racks across 318 square meters of floor space..

So what does one do with all that power?

"Computing platforms like Sequoia help the United States keep its nuclear stockpile safe, secure and effective without the need for underground testing," said administrator Thomas D'Agostino of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, according to Fox News.

"Sequoia will provide a more complete understanding of weapons performance, notably hydrodynamics and properties of materials at extreme pressures and temperatures. In particular, the system will enable suites of highly resolved uncertainty quantification calculations to support the effort to extend the life of aging weapons systems; what we call a life extension program (LEP)," said Bob Meisner, NNSA director of the Advanced Simulation and Computing program.  

These enormous machines can be costly, not only to create but also to run.

"The No. 1 machine - I don't know the exact cost, but I would guess it's on the order of $200 million US," said Jack Dongarra, a member of the group evaluating the machines, according to CBC News.

The group that ranked the computers called the Sequoia "one of the most energy efficient systems on the list." It consumes only six megawatts a year, according to IBM. Most of the supercomputers at the top of the list consume 10 megawatts a year, or the equivalent of 10,000 households, Dongarra said.

The TOP500 list is compiled twice a year, and just last November, Sequoia ranked 17th place. After upgrades, Sequoia topped last year's leader, Japan's Fujitsu K Computer, and China's Tianhe-1A supercomputer, which held the supercomputing crown in 2010, highlighting the increasing speed at which the world's supercomputing powers have developed. 

The U.S. is still the leading continent with 252 of the 500 systems on the list, followed by Asia with 121 and Europe with 106 systems. The latter two grew their shares, while the U.S share dropped by 11 systems compared to the November list, according to PC World.

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