What the Top500 Doesn’t Tell Us

By Michael Feldman

July 13, 2007

I’m not a big fan of the Top500 — the list that ranks the 500 fastest supercomputers in the world. As most readers of this publication are aware, the rankings are based on the Linpack benchmark, which measures how well a system can perform a specific set of linear algebra calculations. As such, the benchmark provides some notion of how much floating point performance is theoretically possible from a given system. But since most HPC applications exhibit much more complex behavior than Linpack, the benchmark isn’t that useful in determining real-world performance.

The most interesting aspect of the list is seeing how the different technologies and companies represented in the Top500 are trending, and this is one of the major reasons the mainstream IT press follows the semi-annual rankings. And of course, everyone loves a competition. As for me, I’d be interested in seeing a few other tidbits of information in the list.

For example, how would the Top500 systems fare on the HPC challenge (HPCC) benchmarks? The HPCC suite consists of seven codes (including Linpack) that measure a variety of performance characteristics, including memory bandwidth, system network communication capacity, and random memory update performance. Because of this, HPCC provides a more balanced view of how well a system might perform with real applications.

There are currently 134 HPC systems that have run at least some of the HPC challenge benchmarks; the results are listed on the HPCC website at http://icl.cs.utk.edu/hpcc/hpcc_results.cgi. As one might suspect, the more traditional cluster systems don’t fare as well on some of the tests, especially the ones that stress inter-processor communication. Here the proprietary system interconnects of the high-end IBM and Cray machines show much better performance than their cluster counterparts. For the past two years at the Supercomputing Conference & Expo, the HPPC competition has awarded the top three systems for each benchmark category. During its short history, top honors have gone to IBM Blue Gene and Cray XT3 systems, in that order.

Another useful piece of information is the performance per watt metric. If the Top500 organizers required that system power usage be specified with each submission, it would be a simple exercise to calculate Linpack performance per watt for a given machine. The HPCC folks could do the same. The Green500 website, maintained by Dr. Wu-chun Feng and Dr. Kirk W. Cameron at Virginia Tech, is attempting to fill that gap by encouraging HPC installations to provide this type of information. So far they have eight machines ranked. At 112.24 megaflops/watt, IBM Blue Gene/L currently holds the top spot as the most energy efficient system (for Linpack). To see the whole list, visit http://www.green500.org/Lists.html.

As the petaflop systems start hitting the streets over the next few years, the power issue will loom even larger. IBM claims its new Blue Gene/P architecture will achieve 350 megaflops/watt, an order of magnitude better than traditional cluster systems. If we go by the information provided by Sun Microsystems, their new 500-teraflop “Ranger” Constellation system to be installed at the Texas Advanced Computing Center later this year will achieve a very respectable 210 megaflops/watt. According to the Cray XT4 datasheet, that system achieves between 40 and 70 megaflops/watt, depending on the configuration (I’m assuming the information is only applicable to dual-core Opteron configurations.)

Maybe the most important information missing from the Top500 list is the context of those systems within the larger HPC community. Specifically, how much high performance computing is taking place in the Top500 versus all the other HPC systems out there — what I’ll call the “Sub500.” Over the past year, the aggregate capacity of the 500 fastest machines almost doubled, going from 2.79 petaflops to 4.92 petaflops. So how much HPC capacity is in the Sub500? And maybe more importantly, did the Sub500 capacity double over the past year as well?

The answer to the last question would tell us if HPC use is getting broader or just deeper. If the former is true, that is, if Sub500 users at least doubled their HPC capacity last year, then true democratization is occurring. But if it’s a matter of the rich getting richer, that would suggest that high-end HPC is still in the driver’s seat. The more complex answer is that both trends are occurring in tandem, but at any given time one is dominant. But which one?

There is a sense that the “center of mass” for high performance computing is moving downward. According to Chris Willard, senior research consultant with Tabor Research, “[C]apacity growth at the low end of the market is driven by growth in the number and sophistication of users. There is a lot of room for growth here both as more companies come on board, and as recent entries move from proof of concept to production computing. In contrast, the high-end users are pretty much a fixed market — the world is willing to spend roughly $1 billion a year on top-of-the-line supercomputers and that has not changed over the last two or three decades.”

There’s little doubt that overall HPC capacity is growing. Over the past few years, high performance and technical computing revenues have increased at a rate exceeding 20 percent (while price/performance continues to improve). And if you can believe IDC, this growth is essentially taking place at the low end of the market, driven by the demand for small- and medium-sized cluster systems. But the standard method of data collection for this kind of analysis may tend to favor the low end of the market. For example, some vendors only report computer node sales, not cluster or systems sales. And there’s no way of telling how nodes are configured after purchase. They may be used as standalone servers or be incorporated into larger systems. To the observer, they all look like low-end systems.

Even assuming the market growth is almost exclusively occurring in the Sub500, I’m not convinced that gains in performance capacity are following the same pattern. Unfortunately, a detailed breakdown of the numbers is hard to come by. As noted above, even simple data collection methodologies have their limitations. And maintaining a list of all HPC systems and computer nodes shipped over the past several years, calculating the capacity of each one, and then determining which machines are in use and which are retired, would be almost impossible. So I’m left wondering.

If the proponents of massive-scale computing are correct, big systems will inherit the IT landscape. In this scenario, computational power will consolidate into larger, fewer machines and most computing will be accessed as a service via a utility model (a la Sun Microsystems’ Network.com). Some have even suggested that a handful of computers may be all that’s required for the entire world’s computing needs. If that’s our future, then at some point the Top500 list will look pretty sparse.

—–

As always, comments about HPCwire are welcomed and encouraged. Write to me, Michael Feldman, at [email protected].

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

Supercomputer Research Reveals Star Cluster Born Outside Our Galaxy

July 11, 2020

The Milky Way is our galactic home, containing our solar system and continuing into a giant band of densely packed stars that stretches across clear night skies around the world – but, it turns out, not all of those st Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Max Planck Society Begins Installation of Liquid-Cooled Supercomputer from Lenovo

July 9, 2020

Lenovo announced today that it is supplying a new high performance computer to the Max Planck Society, one of Germany's premier research organizations. Comprised of Intel Xeon processors and Nvidia A100 GPUs, and featuri Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Xilinx Announces First Adaptive Computing Challenge

July 9, 2020

A new contest is challenging the computing world. Xilinx has announced the first Xilinx Adaptive Computing Challenge, a competition that will task developers and startups with finding creative workload acceleration solutions. Xilinx is running the Adaptive Computing Challenge in partnership with Hackster.io, a developing community... Read more…

By Staff report

Reviving Moore’s Law? LBNL Researchers See Promise in Heterostructure Oxides

July 9, 2020

The reality of Moore’s law’s decline is no longer doubted for good empirical reasons. That said, never say never. Recent work by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers suggests heterostructure oxides may b Read more…

By John Russell

President’s Council Targets AI, Quantum, STEM; Recommends Spending Growth

July 9, 2020

Last week the President Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) met (webinar) to review policy recommendations around three sub-committee reports: 1) Industries of the Future (IotF), chaired be Dario Gil (d Read more…

By John Russell

AWS Solution Channel

Best Practices for Running Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) Workloads on AWS

The scalable nature and variable demand of CFD workloads makes them well-suited for a cloud computing environment. Many of the AWS instance types, such as the compute family instance types, are designed to include support for this type of workload.  Read more…

Intel® HPC + AI Pavilion

Supercomputing the Pandemic: Scientific Community Tackles COVID-19 from Multiple Perspectives

Since their inception, supercomputers have taken on the biggest, most complex, and most data-intensive computing challenges—from confirming Einstein’s theories about gravitational waves to predicting the impacts of climate change. Read more…

Penguin Computing Brings Cascade Lake-AP to OCP Form Factor

July 7, 2020

Penguin Computing, a subsidiary of SMART Global Holdings, Inc., announced yesterday (July 6) a new Tundra server, Tundra AP, that is the first to implement the Intel Xeon Scalable 9200 series processors (codenamed Cascad Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Max Planck Society Begins Installation of Liquid-Cooled Supercomputer from Lenovo

July 9, 2020

Lenovo announced today that it is supplying a new high performance computer to the Max Planck Society, one of Germany's premier research organizations. Comprise Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

President’s Council Targets AI, Quantum, STEM; Recommends Spending Growth

July 9, 2020

Last week the President Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) met (webinar) to review policy recommendations around three sub-committee reports: Read more…

By John Russell

Google Cloud Debuts 16-GPU Ampere A100 Instances

July 7, 2020

On the heels of the Nvidia’s Ampere A100 GPU launch in May, Google Cloud is announcing alpha availability of the A100 “Accelerator Optimized” VM A2 instance family on Google Compute Engine. The instances are powered by the HGX A100 16-GPU platform, which combines two HGX A100 8-GPU baseboards using... Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Q&A: HLRS’s Bastian Koller Tackles HPC and Industry in Germany and Europe

July 6, 2020

In this exclusive interview for HPCwire – sadly not face to face – Steve Conway, senior advisor for Hyperion Research, talks with Dr.-Ing Bastian Koller about the state of HPC and its collaboration with Industry in Europe. Koller is a familiar figure in HPC. He is the managing director at High Performance Computing Center Stuttgart (HLRS) and also serves... Read more…

By Steve Conway, Hyperion

OpenPOWER Reboot – New Director, New Silicon Partners, Leveraging Linux Foundation Connections

July 2, 2020

Earlier this week the OpenPOWER Foundation announced the contribution of IBM’s A21 Power processor core design to the open source community. Roughly this time Read more…

By John Russell

Hyperion Forecast – Headwinds in 2020 Won’t Stifle Cloud HPC Adoption or Arm’s Rise

June 30, 2020

The semiannual taking of HPC’s pulse by Hyperion Research – late fall at SC and early summer at ISC – is a much-watched indicator of things come. This yea Read more…

By John Russell

Racism and HPC: a Special Podcast

June 29, 2020

Promoting greater diversity in HPC is a much-discussed goal and ostensibly a long-sought goal in HPC. Yet it seems clear HPC is far from achieving this goal. Re Read more…

Top500 Trends: Movement on Top, but Record Low Turnover

June 25, 2020

The 55th installment of the Top500 list saw strong activity in the leadership segment with four new systems in the top ten and a crowning achievement from the f Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Supercomputer Modeling Tests How COVID-19 Spreads in Grocery Stores

April 8, 2020

In the COVID-19 era, many people are treating simple activities like getting gas or groceries with caution as they try to heed social distancing mandates and protect their own health. Still, significant uncertainty surrounds the relative risk of different activities, and conflicting information is prevalent. A team of Finnish researchers set out to address some of these uncertainties by... Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

[email protected] Turns Its Massive Crowdsourced Computer Network Against COVID-19

March 16, 2020

For gamers, fighting against a global crisis is usually pure fantasy – but now, it’s looking more like a reality. As supercomputers around the world spin up Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

[email protected] Rallies a Legion of Computers Against the Coronavirus

March 24, 2020

Last week, we highlighted [email protected], a massive, crowdsourced computer network that has turned its resources against the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe – but [email protected] isn’t the only game in town. The internet is buzzing with crowdsourced computing... Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Supercomputer Simulations Reveal the Fate of the Neanderthals

May 25, 2020

For hundreds of thousands of years, neanderthals roamed the planet, eventually (almost 50,000 years ago) giving way to homo sapiens, which quickly became the do Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

DoE Expands on Role of COVID-19 Supercomputing Consortium

March 25, 2020

After announcing the launch of the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium on Sunday, the Department of Energy yesterday provided more details on its sco Read more…

By John Russell

Honeywell’s Big Bet on Trapped Ion Quantum Computing

April 7, 2020

Honeywell doesn’t spring to mind when thinking of quantum computing pioneers, but a decade ago the high-tech conglomerate better known for its control systems waded deliberately into the then calmer quantum computing (QC) waters. Fast forward to March when Honeywell announced plans to introduce an ion trap-based quantum computer whose ‘performance’ would... Read more…

By John Russell

Neocortex Will Be First-of-Its-Kind 800,000-Core AI Supercomputer

June 9, 2020

Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC - a joint research organization of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh) has won a $5 million award Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Global Supercomputing Is Mobilizing Against COVID-19

March 12, 2020

Tech has been taking some heavy losses from the coronavirus pandemic. Global supply chains have been disrupted, virtually every major tech conference taking place over the next few months has been canceled... Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Leading Solution Providers

Contributors

10nm, 7nm, 5nm…. Should the Chip Nanometer Metric Be Replaced?

June 1, 2020

The biggest cool factor in server chips is the nanometer. AMD beating Intel to a CPU built on a 7nm process node* – with 5nm and 3nm on the way – has been i Read more…

By Doug Black

Nvidia’s Ampere A100 GPU: Up to 2.5X the HPC, 20X the AI

May 14, 2020

Nvidia's first Ampere-based graphics card, the A100 GPU, packs a whopping 54 billion transistors on 826mm2 of silicon, making it the world's largest seven-nanom Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

‘Billion Molecules Against COVID-19’ Challenge to Launch with Massive Supercomputing Support

April 22, 2020

Around the world, supercomputing centers have spun up and opened their doors for COVID-19 research in what may be the most unified supercomputing effort in hist Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Australian Researchers Break All-Time Internet Speed Record

May 26, 2020

If you’ve been stuck at home for the last few months, you’ve probably become more attuned to the quality (or lack thereof) of your internet connection. Even Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

15 Slides on Programming Aurora and Exascale Systems

May 7, 2020

Sometime in 2021, Aurora, the first planned U.S. exascale system, is scheduled to be fired up at Argonne National Laboratory. Cray (now HPE) and Intel are the k Read more…

By John Russell

Summit Supercomputer is Already Making its Mark on Science

September 20, 2018

Summit, now the fastest supercomputer in the world, is quickly making its mark in science – five of the six finalists just announced for the prestigious 2018 Read more…

By John Russell

TACC Supercomputers Run Simulations Illuminating COVID-19, DNA Replication

March 19, 2020

As supercomputers around the world spin up to combat the coronavirus, the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) is announcing results that may help to illumina Read more…

By Staff report

$100B Plan Submitted for Massive Remake and Expansion of NSF

May 27, 2020

Legislation to reshape, expand - and rename - the National Science Foundation has been submitted in both the U.S. House and Senate. The proposal, which seems to Read more…

By John Russell

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
Share This