Really Big Iron

June 7, 2010

The folks over at have released their semi-annual list of the world’s 500 most powerful computer systems.   As usual, the United States dominates the list, holding 7 of the top 10 spots ranked by processing power.  It is noteworthy that a Chinese system, the Nebulae/Dawning TC3600, is essentially tied with the US Jaguar system at Oak Ridge National Laboratory for the top spot.  (Each system was slightly better on one of the two performance benchmarks used.)   China has also steadily increased the number of its supercomputer installations, and their power, over the last few years.  Here are the rankings for six selected countries for June 2009 and June 2010, based on the number of systems:

Country Jun 2009 Jun 2010
United States 58.2 56.4
China 4.2 4.8
Germany 6.0 4.8
Japan 3.0 3.6
Russia 0.8 2.2
United Kingdom 8.8 7.6

The list also shows that the idea of using a lot of cheap commodity processors, rather than highly specialized “super chips”, is definitely the order of the day. Intel 64-bit processors are used in 81.2% of the systems, with AMD processors used in 9.8%, and POWER processors in 8.4%.

The supercomputer builders also seem to have some definite preferences when it comes to operating systems.  Linux is used in 455 (91%) of the 500 systems.  Unix is used in 22 systems (4.4%), and “mixed” operating systems (almost always Linux or Unix with proprietary additions) in 17 systems (3.4%),   This is one market segment where Microsoft is definitely an also-ran; just 5 systems (1%) use the HPC version of Windows.

Looking at historical statistics since the list was first compiled in 1993, two things stand out:

  • The initial significant share held by proprietary processor architectures, such as Cray, MIPS, PA-RISC, and others, has essentially disappeared, to be replaced by commodity CPUs.
  • The predominant OS in 1993 was Unix, with some proprietary systems.  Today, Linux has replaced Unix in most cases, and has also displaced most proprietary systems.  The replacement of Unix is not too surprising, since Linux is a “work alike” system; there is no evidence that any alternatives are very attractive to the system builders.

The first “real” computer I wrote programs for was an IBM System 360/91, which had 2MB of memory (a huge amount at the time), and a CPU substantially less powerful than the one in the laptop on which I’m writing this.

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