Germans unwrap Europe's fastest supercomputer

An IBM Blue Gene system has become the continent's premier Big Iron. By James Niccolai

Jülich, a German Research Centre, has unveiled Europe's most powerful supercomputer, an IBM Blue Gene system that will be used by European scientists for environmental and particle physics research.

Called Jülich Blue Gene/L (JUBL), the system offers a peak performance of 45.8 teraflops, equivalent to 45.8 trillion operations per second. That makes it Europe's most powerful supercomputer based on the latest supercomputer top 500 list, published in November, says. Norbert Attig of Jülich's Central Institute for Applied Mathematics.

It supplants the former biggest supercomputer in Europe, the MareNostrum blade cluster at the Barcelona Supercomputer Centre — which is also an IBM system.

JUBL will serve as a "virtual laboratory" where scientists do environmental research work, such as simulating the diffusion of harmful materials in the atmosphere. It will also be used for the material and life sciences.

One of three supercomputing centres in Germany, Jülich is already home to a supercomputer called JUMP (Jülich Multi Processor), which is based on IBM's p690 servers. That system has a peak performance of 8.9 teraflops per second.

The Blue Gene architecture offers several advantages over the p690, Attig says. Each processor in JUBL is less powerful, but there are many more of them and they are packed more tightly together, giving a better "gigaflop to floor space ratio", he says.

JUBL has 2,048 processors in each of its eight racks, for a total of 16,384. The older JUMP machine has 32 processors in each of 41 racks, for a total of 1,312 processors.

"The performance of each processor is lower, but the architecture gives you more flexibility because you have less heat to transfer out of the machine," Attig says.

The Blue Gene system also occupies less floor space — about 100 square metres, compared to 300-400 square meters for the p690 system, he says.

Jülich made an agreement with IBM not to discuss the price of the system. "However, I can tell you that Iowa State University bought a similar system with one rack for US$1.3 million (NZ$2.02 million) [and] we have not paid any more for each rack", Attig says.

Researchers have so far used only about 20% of JUBL's performance capacity, Attig says. One of the challenges has been porting applications from JUMP to take advantage of the Blue Gene system's highly parallel architecture.

"On the new system you can only see the big performance gain if you have high-scaling applications, applications which really run on thousands of processors," he says. "We had the first rack delivered last year, in June or July. We did the first porting and saw it was much more successful than we'd expected. We thought only a few applications would scale up, but then we saw a lot of applications could take advantage. So we asked IBM for more of them and finally we have seven more racks," he says.

The new machine still lacks some basic management tools, however.

"A lot of software is missing or at a stage where it can't be used conveniently." Attig says. "For example, we have no scheduling system right now, so we use a handwritten reservation system and that restricts the number of users dramatically."

JUBL is currently serving only about 10 projects and 30 users, while JUMP is hosting 150 projects and 600 users, he says. JUBL was only switched on a little over a month ago, he says, and the number of users will increase over time.

Systems like JUBL are needed to keep pace with growing demand for compute time from scientists and academics, which are likely to increase by a factor of a thousand in the next five years, says Joachim Treusch, chairman of the board at Jülich.

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