NEC’s Vector Supercomputer to Power Japan’s ‘Next Earth Simulator’

By Oliver Peckham

October 13, 2020

The Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) engages in a wide variety of research and development projects to support Japan’s maritime activities and better understand global environmental changes and natural disasters affecting the country. Now, the Japanese multinational IT firm NEC has announced that it will be providing JAMSTEC with a “large-scale” system using NEC’s newly announced SX-Aurora Tsubasa vector supercomputer. The new system is expected to begin operating in March 2021.

The original Earth Simulator system.

The system will serve the “Next Earth Simulator” project, which aims to “contribute to research and development related to the global environment, marine resources, marine earthquakes and volcanic activities, as well as the creation, analysis and coordination of enormous amounts of data in a highly efficient manner” – in essence, serve the general purposes of JAMSTEC. The system is the latest in a series of successors to the original Earth Simulator system, a 36 Linpack teraflops supercomputer that reigned as the most powerful publicly ranked supercomputer in the world from 2002 to 2004. Earth Simulator was succeeded by Earth Simulator 2 in 2009, which in turn was succeeded by Earth Simulator 3 in 2017. (It is unclear whether the new system will be assigned the “Earth Simulator 4” moniker.)

The B401-8 rack-mounted system from NEC. Image courtesy of NEC.

At the heart of JAMSTEC’s new system will be NEC’s new SX-Aurora Tsubasa B401-8 vector supercomputer. Vector processors – which excel at running tasks in parallel – were prominent in early supercomputers, but faded as the costs of scalar microprocessors diminished. NEC, however, continues to champion vector processors in supercomputing. Its most recent entry into the vector supercomputing space is the B401-8.

The B401-8 is equipped with eight “vector engines” (PCIe cards equipped with vector processors), each capable of delivering a max of nearly 25 teraflops. The vector engines are supported by a “vector host” server running Red Hat Enterprise Linux or CentOS, and the vector engine itself is powered by an AMD Epyc CPU and up to 512 GB of memory. The B401-8 uses Nvidia Mellanox HDR InfiniBand networking.

While the B401-8 is new – having just been announced in late June – it’s actually a datacenter-specific model of the existing SX-Aurora Tsubasa system. The B401-8, however, offers higher density than its stock predecessor and claims a 25% increase in vector processor performance, as well as new hybrid computing functionality that combines the power of the vector processors with the AMD CPUs to boost performance.

NEC says that the B401-8 is optimized for AI and HPC applications like weather forecasting, climate modeling, fluid analysis and more – a specialty borne out by its new deal with JAMSTEC, as well as an initial order of the B401-8 from the Cyberscience Center at Tohoku University, which plans to use the system for functionality ranging from climate simulation to aircraft development.

In addition to the NEC hardware, the Next Earth Simulator will use Nvidia A100 GPUs, “large-capacity storage units” provided by DDN (61.4 PB in total) and “general-purpose computing node servers” provided by HPE. According to JAMSTEC, the system will deliver 19.5 theoretical peak petaflops – nearly 15 times the 1.3 petaflops delivered by Earth Simulator 3. If accurate, that would be enough to place the Next Earth Simulator well within the upper echelons of publicly ranked supercomputers (and deliver another major supercomputing win for Japan, which just landed the top spot again with its Fugaku system).

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