Lab soups up Linux supercomputer

A 2,000-processor Intel Itanium 2 supercomputer at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Labs has edged out Lawrence Livermore National Lab's Intel Xeon-based Multiprogrammatic Capability Cluster for the title of world's fastest Linux supercomputer, according to PNNL.

PNNL Tuesday announced that it had completed an upgrade of the 1,400 1.0 GHz Itanium 2 McKinley processors in its William W. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory supercomputer in Richland, Wash., boosting the system's peak performance from 6.2 trillion floating point operations per second (T FLOPS) to 11.8T FLOPS. The new processors run at 1.5 GHz and are based on Intel's follow-up to its McKinley design, which is called Madison.

"It's about 11,800 times faster than the average personal computer," said PNNL Molecular Science Computing Facility's manager of computer operations, Scott Studham. "Most computers have between 250M bytes and 1G byte of memory. This one has 7,000G bytes of memory."

Linux has emerged in the last few years as an increasingly popular operating system for the highly technical supercomputer market. In the last month, Dell announced plans to build a 17.7T FLOPS Xeon system for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and IBM, Fujitsu and Cray all are building Linux supercomputers in the 11T FLOPS to 40T FLOPS range.

PNNL's upgrade process took just over a month, with a team of 10 HP employees on site unpacking and installing about 250 Madison microprocessors into the Labs' McKinley-based rx2600 machines each week. "On a weekly basis, a semi truck with processors would show up," said Studham, who claims to have developed more than a passing familiarity with the CPU upgrade process. "I can personally tell you that there are four screws required to take out an Itanium 2 CPU," he said.

The 3,000-square-foot, $24.5 million system will be used for a variety of computationally intensive tasks at the labs, such as studying basic chemistry and biology, and modeling how leaked radioactive material might move underground.

For this kind of science, the Itanium 2's floating point performance of 6 billion operations per second made it a better fit than AMD's rival Opteron processor, Studham said. "It was important for us to build out of the fastest processor we could get," he said. He estimated the labs would have needed 1,000 more processors to achieve the same level of floating point performance with an Opteron-based supercomputer.

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