Sequoia: The Next Generation of Supercomputer

By Markus Henkel

April 28, 2009

What would the former IBM chief executive Thomas Watson have to say about the current development taking place with computers? After all it was Watson who claimed in 1943 that the world would need about five computers. Today, that claim looks a little wayward, to say the least, with millions of computers being sold over-the-counter every year.

When computer performance is bundled together, we have what is known as a supercomputer. In the US, plans are already underway to build just such a computing colossus that will overshadow all previous such systems. The “Sequoia” project aims to build the first computer capable of reaching the 20 petaflop mark. In comparison, “Roadrunner,” currently the world’s fastest computer, just about manages a petaflop, meaning that “Sequoia” would make it look more like the world’s fastest calculator.

But what does 20 petaflops per second mean? Primarily, 20 petaflops is a value, a 20 with fifteen zeros, and is in itself nothing tangible. In order to form a better appreciation for what “Sequoia” with its 20 petaflops is capable of, it would take six billion people all equipped with calculators 1,000 years to do the calculations that “Sequoia” can manage in one day. That’s a scenario that in Watson’s day would have caused an uproar and been considered as being beyond even the wildest borders of fiction.

Before “Sequoia” is put into operation, another system will ensure that everything runs exactly to plan. The supercomputer “Dawn,” primarily a delivery system, will be based on Blue Gene/P technology and reach performances of over 500 teraflops. Both computers will work in tandem, although “Dawn” will afford users the opportunity of developing or adapting their applications for Blue Gene technology and to test and improve their scalability. “Dawn” is, as such, a typical porting and developing system. It will be the system on which applications are created and these applications will then execute operations and calculations in the petaflop range on “Seqouia.” Since there are not so many of these applications around, the supposedly smaller computer takes on added significance for users. They can undertake and carry out initial tests and studies and attempt to pave the way toward such petaflop applications.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, which commissioned the project, is a part of the US Department of Energy. It wants to see “Sequoia” in use by 2012. By then no fewer than 96 racks will provide accommodation for the 1.6 million IBM POWER processors. Klaus Gottschalk
According to official press releases, “Sequoia” will contribute to increased security and reliability of the United States nuclear arsenal. It goes without saying, of course, that other types of security aspects pertaining to the nuclear arsenal will be simulated, especially with regard to keeping a secure eye on aging materials. All over the world, scientists have been searching for solutions to problems raised by the safe disposal and storage of nuclear waste.

“We see the entire project from the point of view of the researcher,” said Klaus Gottschalk, IT Systems architect with IBM. “For him the use of the computer is easy to evaluate. Large sums are being invested to help drive development onwards.”

However, this giant machine is not only capable of turning nuclear research into visible, viewable action. The enormous potential offered by a 20 petaflop computer extends to far beyond nuclear weapons safety. According to IBM estimates, the supercomputer will be able to forecast weather up to 40 times more precisely than is possible today, and be invaluable in such areas as astronomy, energy, biotechnology and climate research. ”Modeling and simulation is crucial for ensuring the ability of our country to innovate and compete globally,” explained Dr. Cynthia McIntyre, Senior VP at the Council on Competitiveness.

At this point, IBM has not said exactly how much power “Sequoia” is going to need. But according to the company, the machine is set to break all records in this area as well. It has been estimated that it will be the world’s first computer to achieve an efficiency of 3,050 calculations per watt.

In terms of supercomputing, the US is no longer the only big player. The IBM-JUGENE system in Juelich, Germany, means Europe is currently ranked 11th in a list of the world’s 500 fastest computers compiled by the universities of Mannheim and Tennessee. Accordingly, the Juelich Research Center has been top of the tree in Europe for the last two years in terms of fastest computer. Plans are already afoot in Juelich to install the first petaflop computer in Europe — incidentally also from IBM — by the middle of this year.

In all probability, after an initial introduction, this supercomputer will force its way into the top three of the world’s fastest computers. It will be capable of one quadrillion computational operations per second. The new supercomputer’s roughly 295,000 processors will then be housed in 72 phonebox-sized cabinets in the computing labs of the Juelich Supercomputing Center. Replete with 144 terabytes of RAM, and together with the remaining computers at the research center, Juelich will then be operating at 1.3 petaflops per second. In addition to its high speed, the supercomputer will also have access to around 6 petabytes of hard disk. That more or less corresponds to sufficient memory to store all the information contained on over one million DVDs.

This will be the first machine built specifically for the Gauss Center, which has centers in Juelich, Stuttgart and Garching in Germany. The Gauss Allianz is a European-wide consortium that bundles the performance capacity of all Europe’s supercomputers. According to a spokesperson for the research centre at Juelich, “The three centers should speak with one voice and provide a counterpart and intermediary for scientists, particularly on the international stage.”

The Juelich Research Center’s main focus is to be found in fundamental research. The present Blue Gene/P system has around 20 applications that use up the majority of its computing time. Top of this list belongs to the quantum chromodynamics, or QCD, application. This application is closely related to quantum electrodynamics, which help describe the strong interactions of electrically-charged particles by means of exchange of photons — thus forming a theory from high energy physics.

In total, scientists from all manners of disciplines — from materials science through particle physics to medicine and environmental research — will have the opportunity to book themselves some computer time on the Juelich system. An independent committee of experts will then decide on which plans are best suited and allocate computing time accordingly. Researchers will be pleased at the enthusiasm for investment in such projects. Achim Bachem, chairman of the research center, states confidently, “Computers capable of this kind of performance form a universal key technology in helping find solutions to the most complex and most urgent scientific problems.”

About the Author

Markus Henkel is a geodesist, science writer and lives in Hamburg, Germany. He writes about supercomputing, environmental protection and clinical medicine. For more information, email him at or visit the Web site:

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