From Deep Blue to Summit – 30 Years of Supercomputing Innovation

By Gabor Samu, IBM

November 16, 2018

This week, in honor of the 30th anniversary of the SC conference, we are highlighting some of the most significant IBM contributions to supercomputing over the past 30 years.

In May of 1997, the front page of the New York Times announced that an IBM computer named Deep Blue had beaten the chess grandmaster, Garry Kasparov. Deep Blue became the first computer system to defeat a reigning world champion in a match under standard chess tournament time controls. The system was capable of evaluating 200 million positions per second. It was the 259th most powerful supercomputer in the world back then and provided one of the earliest examples of the partnership that would develop between Artificial Intelligence and high performance computing.

Then In 1999, the project that would become IBM Blue Gene ushered in a new era of high-performance computing. IBM began exploring novel ideas in massively parallel machine architecture and software, including how to make massively parallel machines more usable, cost-effective, and energy-efficient. In November 2004 at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), the first of many IBM Blue Gene supercomputers was deployed and took its place as the most powerful computer in the world, with a record performance of 70.72 Teraflops. The LLNL Blue Gene/L installation held the first position in the Top500 list for more than three years, a very long tenure in the world of supercomputers, until in June 2008 it was overtaken by IBM’s Cell-based Roadrunner system at Los Alamos National Labs – the first system to surpass the 1 Petaflop mark.

IBM contributions to supercomputing over the past three decades have not only helped researchers explore some of the most complex and fascinating mysteries of the universe, these efforts have also earned IBM teams a number of prestigious awards. For example, starting in 1999, IBM teams were awarded or shared Gordon Bell Prizes in more than half a dozen separate years. Named for one of the founding fathers of supercomputing, the prestigious Gordon Bell Prize is awarded to innovators who advance high performance computing.

A year after that first IBM Blue Gene/L supercomputer began operating at Lawrence Livermore, an IBM team leveraged its power for pioneering materials science simulations and won a Gordon Bell Prize. The next year, in 2006, a large-scale electronic structure simulation of the heavy metal molybdenum conducted on Blue Gene/L won an IBM team the 2006 Gordon Bell Prize. By 2013, IBM Blue Gene systems had helped map the human genome, flown airplanes, pinpointed tumors, predicted climate trends, and then in 2013 simulated bubbles — 15,000 of them, to be precise. This particular research project achieved a new supercomputing record and was awarded the Gordon Bell Prize that year. Then in November of 2015, IBM yet again shared the Gordon Bell Prize when scientists, including an IBM team, realistically simulated the forces inside the Earth that drive plate tectonics. The team’s work heralded a major step toward better understanding earthquakes and volcanic activity.

One of the most interesting projects that led to IBM winning a Gordon Bell Prize came in 2009 – for simulating a cat’s brain. BlueMatter, an algorithm created in collaboration with Stanford University, exploited the Blue Gene supercomputing architecture in order to noninvasively measure and map the connections between all cortical and sub-cortical locations within the human brain. The project achieved the first near real-time cortical simulation of a brain containing 1 billion spiking neurons and 10 trillion individual learning synapses, which exceeds the scale of a cat cortex. The result marked significant progress toward creating a computer system that simulated and emulated the brain’s abilities for sensation, perception, action, interaction, and cognition, while rivaling the brain’s low power and energy consumption and compact size.

The year before, IBM had been awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation by the National Science and Technology Medals Foundation (NSTMF). This prestigious medal was awarded to IBM: “For the IBM Blue Gene supercomputer and its systems architecture, design, and software, which have delivered fundamental new science, unsurpassed speed, and unparalleled energy efficiency and have had a profound impact worldwide on the high-performance computing industry.

Of course, everyone remembers 2011, when IBM Watson competed on the Jeopardy! Television game show against legendary champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings and won the first place prize of $1 million for charity.  At that time, Watson’s main innovation was in its ability to quickly execute hundreds of proven language analysis algorithms simultaneously. During the televised competitions, Watson, consisting of ten racks of ten IBM POWER 750 servers, was represented at the podium by an avatar of IBM’s Smarter Planet logo, whose moving lines went green when Watson cracked a thorny problem, and orange when the answer was wrong.

By 2018, IBM had once again taken over the two top spots in the Top500 list of the world’s most powerful supercomputers. Along with Oak Ridge National Lab’s Summit platform, ranked currently as the world’s fastest supercomputer, IBM also unveiled another member of the CORAL program – Sierra – at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Summit and Sierra will help model supernovas; pioneer new materials; and explore cancer, genetics, and the environment, among many other tasks.

These are just a small sampling of the many contributions IBM has made to supercomputing over the past 30 years. Imagine what the next 30 years will bring.

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