Since 1986 - Covering the Fastest Computers in the World and the People Who Run Them

Language Flags
October 6, 2006

Leapfrogging the Petaflop Race

by Herbert Wenk

An undeclared race towards petaflop computing is in progress between the United States and Japan — a race which is being closely watched by the global HPC community. Right now the scales lean towards the U.S., which leads with its latest IBM Blue Gene/L computer, a 280 teraflops (sustained) system. The IBM machine took the number one spot from Japan's Earth Simulator in 2004, which had dominated the supercomputing charts since 2002.

Experts are expecting the first petaflop system within the next couple of years. The bets are that it will be a follow-on of the IBM design. However, Japan is not to be discounted. As the first and only country having specified supercomputers as “Key Technology of National Importance,” Japan is aiming at becoming the world leader in simulation capabilities in areas covering nano-science, life science, climate/geo-science, physical science and engineering. Unburdened by the responsibility for nuclear stockpile stewardship, it can focus its research and financing on providing a petaflop platform for real-world applications.

These efforts are harnessed by the RIKEN institute, which together with leading industries and universities has set up an organization that targets the development of a 10 petaflop system within the next six years. On September 19th, RIKEN issued a press release which officially declared these intentions. Back in April 2006, a research collaboration started in Japan to define the best possible architecture for such a system, based on a benchmark consisting of 21 real-world applications. Using these benchmarks, two candidates for such an architecture have now been selected for further design evaluation. They have been put forward by Fujitsu Ltd. and a team formed by NEC Corporation and Hitachi, Ltd. The results of this final evaluation will be available at the end of this fiscal year and will become the basis of the implementation. On September 19th and 20th, RIKEN held a seminar at which the announcement was made.

Taking advantage of a visit to Bonn, Germany to give a keynote lecture at a scientific conference, Dr. Mitsuyasu Hanamura, who heads the applications software group within the RIKEN Next-Generation Supercomputer R&D Center, took part in a press briefing organized by the NEC Europe Computing & Communication Research lab in St. Augustin, Germany. Dr. Hanamura, gave a technical summary of this subject.

The Next-Generation Supercomputer Project, as it is called within Japan, is tasked to support six distinct goals:

  • Achieve a “quantum” jump in knowledge, discovery and creation on topics such as the Milky Way formation process and planet forming.
  • Pursue breakthroughs in advanced science and engineering, such as nuclear reactor analysis, laser reaction analysis and engine design.
  • Develop predictive models of the interaction of human development and the environments, such as the influence of the El Nino phenomenon.
  • Support Japan in its goal to become an innovation leader and strengthen its economy and industries in areas such as nano-technology and nano-engineering.
  • Develop tailor-made solutions for medical care and drug design — at the level of the genome, cell and organs.
  • Make Japan the world's safest nation, by predicting and simulating the effects from natural disasters.

To reach these goals, the new machine will enable access for researchers and industries through the cyber science infrastructure framework of the National Research Grid Initiative (NAREGI) project initiated by the National Institute of Informatics (NII).

According to Dr. Hanamura, because of prohibitive power consumption, the new class of supercomputers will need technology breakthroughs. Based on reasonable projections until 2010 on compute-power per CPU, efficiency-factors and power consumption, as well as the need to support existing codes, he gave an estimate for a hypothetical one petaflop (sustained) system:
  CPU Type     Peak Perf.    Efficiency     Est. Power   SW Support
  ——–     ———-    ———-     ———-   ———-

  Vector       63 GF/CPU        0.3          47   MW        good

  Scalar       30 GF/CPU        0.1          40   MW        good

  Special-       n.a.           0.5          ~0.5 MW        poor

This data clearly points towards a mixed hardware environment in order to be able to reach both high performance and the support of existing application code. As an example for special purpose hardware he pointed to RIKEN's MD-GRAPE3 machine, a special-purpose computer geared for molecular dynamics and multi-body calculations. In May 2006, a system based on this chip already achieved a performance level of over one petaflop. Therefore Dr. Hanamura foresees an architecture which combines scalar nodes, vector computers and special purpose computers into a single system. As multi-scale simulations often need to consider both particle-based and domain-based effects, which lend themselves naturally to different computing models, this new architecture should be well suited here.

The tentative schedule of the project is

  • Start operations: End of FY2010
  • Full completion: End of FY2011

Lead by Dr. Tadashi Watanabe, the father of NEC's SX family of supercomputers and Japan's Earth Simulator, the Next-Generation Supercomputer Center at RIKEN has started a new round in the HPC race. Boosted by a government grant, estimated at 750 million Euros, this development is expected to boost the competitiveness of Japan's IT industry and advance the acceptance of high performance computing in more and more industries.


With 25 years of experience in IT, Herbert Wenk ( is working as a consultant and technical journalist in Germany.