Jaguar’s supercomputing reign coming to an end?

A timeline of supercomputing speed. 

A timeline of supercomputing speed.(Credit: AMD)
The Jaguar supercomputer, housed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory at the University of Tennessee, has been the fastest supercomputer on the planet for almost a year. But is it about to lose that title and place atop the podium?

Every six months, the Top500 project releases the rankings of the most powerful supercomputers. The current pace of technology development means the list does tend to reorder every half a year or so. But Jaguar has been poised at the top of the food chain for almost a year. Though the Top500 list doesn’t get released until next week, it’s been widely assumed that Jaguar will be taken down by a supercomputer built by China’s National University of Defense Technology, located at the National Supercomputing Center in Tianjin.

Jaguar narrowly avoided being overtaken in June, the last time the rankings were released. The Nebulae supercomputer, located at the National Supercomputing Center in Shenzhen, came in second, achieving 1.271 petaflops/s (1.271 quadrillion floating point operations per second) running something called the Linpack benchmark.

But it appears that Jaguar’s lead has been overcome this time. There have been reports about it over the last few weeks, and President Barack Obama even mentioned it during a speech last week:

“And we just learned that China now has the fastest supercomputer on Earth–that used to be us. They’re making investments because they know those investments will pay off over the long term,” he said.

The supercomputers are ranked on many factors, but the the Top500 list is ordered based on the results of the Linpack benchmark. Even if it places the Tianjin supercomputer above Jaguar, it doesn’t necessarily mean the U.S. is getting bumped from its perch atop supercomputing, argue two scientists who work at Oak Ridge.

“What you find historically with these supercomputers is they become the normal machines 5 or 10 years later that everybody uses.” 

–Jeremy Smith, Center for Molecular Biophysics

“China might have the largest number of cores in one computer, so theoretically they have the most powerful computer. But they maybe don’t have the most powerful scientific codes yet that use that computer,” said Jeremy Smith, director of the Center for Molecular Biophysics at the University of Tennessee, in an interview. “So from that perspective, they may not be at the same level as Oak Ridge.”

Jaguar is comprised of more than 250,000 AMD Opteron cores, running extremely sophisticated computer programs that try to answer complex questions like why ribosomes (components of cells that create amino acids) are dependent on magnesium, how to simulate making more environmentally-friendly ethanol out of plant material, and how to predict climate change. Jaguar’s specialty is getting all those cores running together extremely efficiently, which is a separate and perhaps harder task than just building a really powerful computer.

Smith says that the projects at Oak Ridge National Laboratory run extremely efficiently on Jaguar, and the scientific value of the computing is therefore very high.

While China’s supercomputer is based on GPUs (graphics processing unit) (in this case, built by Nvidia), and it’s faster technically because the CPU (central processing unit) uses the GPU to accelerate its speed. But if you don’t get the software to run on it properly, it’s actually harder to use, Roland Schultz, graduate student at the University of Tennessee’s Center for Molecular Biophysics, said.

What Schultz says he is much more interested in is the Gordon Bell Prize, which is awarded by the Association for Computing Machinery to the most innovative scientific application of supercomputing. Teams from Oak Ridge have won most recently in 2008 and 2009 for research into high-temperature superconductivity, or sending electricity over long distances in high temperatures with no loss of transmission.

But do we make too much of who’s faster? Smith put it in perspective.

“What you find historically with these supercomputers is they become the normal machines 5 or 10 years later that everybody uses,” said Smith. “The Jaguar machines that we’re so amazed at right now, it could be every university or company has one” eventually.

We’ll know exactly how things have shaken out next week when the Top500 List is released. But even if Jaguar does get hunted down by a Chinese supercomputer, it’s not as if the folks at Oak Ridge are sitting still. The Department of Energy, which owns Oak Ridge’s supercomputer, is already looking at moving from the current peta-scale computing (a quadrillion floating point operations per second) to exa-scale computing (a quintillion floating point operations per second), a speed one thousand times faster than Jaguar is currently capable of processing at.

“To get there in the next 5 to 10 years, to get to 10 million cores in one room, is a major technical challenge,” noted Smith. “It’s going to be fundamentally different than before. It’s a hardware problem, and getting the software working is a major challenge indeed.”


Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She’s also one of the hosts of CNET News’ Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she’s a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur. E-mail Erica.

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by Otto Holland November 11, 2010 5:50 PM PST
The article mentioned 250,000 cores of AMD Opteron. I am curious to know if those processors are the 4 cores or the new Barcelona 12 cores on 32 NANO.
If they are the older 4 or 6 cores, they can be swaped out for the new 12 cores, because they use the same ZIFF socket. Just wondering….
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by rip_saw November 11, 2010 6:19 PM PST

Durr, who has the most cores and flops is meaningless now. Last I checked, Folding@home trumps the crap out of anything in China, and google’s servers totally destroy any supercomputer, although they are not being used for that purpose. I understand the use of a single computer, but for many projects, it’s just not needed.
Like this Reply to this comment

by dralw65 November 11, 2010 6:42 PM PST

This a good article that is very informative, however, the statement about ribsomes appears incorrect: ribosomes synthesize proteins from amino acids. Amino acids are not made by ribosomes.
Like this Reply to this comment

by realityenigma November 11, 2010 7:46 PM PST

When I first read this (on I was concerned myself. However, I was directed to an interesting link about a supercomputer (US built) that will be ready in 2012:
I am sure you guys can find more articles if you are interested;nevertheless, I think we can rest easy if we are worried about speed records.
Like this Reply to this comment

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‘Superb’ Apple 1 on the block for £100k-£150

1976 Jobs garage tech can be yours

By Drew CullenGet more from this author

12th November 2010 01:16 GMT

Forgotten Tech An original Apple 1 made by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in Jobs parent’s garage goes on the auction block in London this month.

The Apple 1 was designed by Jobs and Steve Wozniak in 1976. Just 200 were made, according to the website Old Computers, and up to 50 are thought to survive.

At the time they cost £666.66, but Lot 65 is expected to fetch £100,000- £150,000, according to Christies, which says it is in superb condition.

Lot 65 has its original packaging, with the garage’s return address on the typed label. Also included are the original manuals, a letter from Steve Jobs and an invoice dated 12/7/76.

Apple1 -motherboard, number 82, printed label - pic credit Christies
Apple 1 – It could be yours
According to Christies, the Apple 1 was the first pre-assembled PC – no soldering required. As you can see from the picture above there was no casing, monitor, power supply, or keyboard. But in principle, it worked out of the box.

We have lifted the picture of an Apple 1 with lovely wooden casing from Wikimedia, so you can see what it looked like in anger.

Apple 1 Computer housed in wooden casing - from Wikimedia
Apple 1 – lots of lovely wood
The website Old Computers has more about the Apple 1 spec.

Christies has assembled a strong list of works – composed by iconic names from the science and technology worlds – and another rare bit of kit for the Valuable Printed Books and Manuscripts auction on November 23.

These include:

  • An Enigma Machine used to code break German messages in the second World War (estimate £30K-£50K)
  • A collection of offprints by Allan Turing (estimate £300k-£500K)
  • A paper by Charles Babbage ‘On a method of expressing by signs the action of Machinery (£10k-£15K).
  • patent specification for ENIAC, the world’s first electronic computer (£6k-££9K),
  • a manual co written by Grace Hopper (£1,200 -£1,500)

Happy bidding. ®

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Asian Games glitering opening, Guangzhou shines!

Glittering opening to Asian Games

Chinese prime minister declares the games open after a spectacular opening ceremony in Guangzhou.

Last Modified: 12 Nov 2010 22:03 GMT

The Asian Games officially opened with a glitzy ceremony featuring more than 6,000 performers  [AFP]

China promised another spectacular opening event and delivered it to mark the start of the Asian Games.

Two years after the Beijing Olympics in the Chinese capital, the southern city of Guangzhou – which for a long time served as China’s window to the world – opened the world’s second-biggest multi-sports event on Friday, with an aqua-themed ceremony.

Athletes were ferried on 45 boats to an island venue shaped like the bow of a ship for an extravaganza of light, water and flames.

More than 10,000 athletes from 45 countries or territories are competing in 42 sports starting on Saturday and finishing on November 27.

Brightly illuminated in bulbs of different colours, the boats were decorated with Asian landmarks – including Japan’s Mount Fuji, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, Jordan’s Petra and India’s Taj Mahal. China was represented by the Temple of Heaven, the Bird’s Nest and the country’s pavilion from the recently concluded Shanghai World Expo.

Logistical issues

The massive scale of the opening ceremony posed logistical issues for the Chinese organizers.

Except for members of the public who won a lottery for tickets to the show, most residents in the city of 10 million had little choice but to watch on TV.

The downtown area was locked down near the stadium and residents within a one-kilometer radius were ordered to leave their homes for the night – apparently to eliminate the threat of sniper fire.

Many downtown subway stations were closed Friday for security sweeps and streets in the vicinity of the opening ceremony were unusually quiet for a bustling city of more than 10 million.

Wen Jiaobao, the Chinese Premier, attended, and was joined by Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s president; Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Thai Prime Minister; and other dignitaries from the region.

There will be 28 gold medals awarded on Saturday, the first day of full competition, with finals in shooting, swimming, triathlon, judo, weightlifting, gymnastics and in dance sports, which is making its debut at the Asian Games.

India has a good chance in the shooting, with Olympic champion Abhinav Bindra and Gagan Narang in action.

Japan has the leading contenders in the women’s triathlon and judo, but China is again expected to lead the way from the start in the overall medal count.

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Two years after dazzling the world at the Beijing Olympic Games, China gets another chance to show off its economic and sporting might when the 16th Asian Games to open in the Southern city of Guangzhou on 12.11.2010.

( Updated: 2010-11-08 10:51

Guangzhou shines for Asian Games
Light shoots out from the Liede Bridge into the night sky, illuminating Guangzhou, the host city of 16th Asian Games on Nov 7, 2010. Dazzling light displays for the upcoming Asian Games have been installed in some public places and high-rise buildings in Guangzhou to make the city more charming for the games. [Photo/Xinhua]
Guangzhou shines for Asian Games
The 610-meter-high new Guangzhou TV Tower is illuminated and decorated for the upcoming Asian Games in Guangzhou, capital of South China’s Guangdong province on Nov 7, 2010. [Photo/Xinhua]
Guangzhou shines for Asian Games
Commercial buildings and green belt along the Pearl River shine at night in Guangzhou, host city of the 16th Asian Games, Nov 7, 010. [Photo/Xinhua]
Guangzhou shines for Asian Games
Buildings along the Pearl River have been decorated with various lights displaying images to light up Guangzhou, the host city of the 16th Asian Games, Nov 7, 2010. [Photo/Xinhua]

Guangzhou shines for Asian Games

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