Server Snapshots: IBM Blue Gene/P

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted Sep 21, 2007


It's been quite a few years since IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer beat Garry Kasparov, the reigning world champion chess master. While that machine had 32 processors and could manage 200 million operations per second, a more recent version, known as Blue Gene/L, could be expanded to 131,000 processors with processing rates of 280 trillion ops/sec.

The latest version of the IBM powerhouse is proving that energy efficiency and power aren't mutually exclusive.

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Not surprisingly, such a machine has gathered many accolades. For example, green500.org named it the most energy-efficient computer in the world.

The Blue Gene supercomputer line was born from an IBM initiative to develop a highly scalable and reliable scientific computing platform. Blue Gene designers sidestepped two key constraints — power usage and space requirements. It was built to fit in smaller spaces and use less electricity compared to other commercially available designs.

This summer, IBM replaced the Blue Gene/L with the brand new Blue Gene/P.

"Today, the Blue Gene/P supercomputer is at least seven times more energy efficient than any other supercomputer," said Dave Turek, vice president of deep computing at IBM (Armonk, N.Y.) "The influence of the Blue Gene supercomputer's energy-efficient design and computing model — once considered exotic — can be seen everywhere in the industry where people have attempted to lower energy use and get performance without traditional reliance on chip frequency."

In addition, to energy efficiency kudos, Blue Gene holds positions one, four, five and seven on the Top 500 Supercomputer list issued by Top500.org.

"For the fourth straight time, the Blue Gene/L System developed by IBM and the DOE's [Department of Energy's] National Nuclear Security Administration and installed at DOE's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., claimed the No. 1 spot," said Top500.org. "The Blue Gene/L reached a Linpack benchmark performance of 280.6 TFlop/s ["teraflops" or trillions of calculations per second]."

According to Turek, the company's systems account for 42 percent of the combined computational might of the planet's most powerful computers. In addition, the development version of IBM's newest Blue Gene/P has entered the list at number 30. Launched this summer, the two-rack test system delivers 20.86 teraflops in a space the size of two refrigerator-sized racks.

"The main advance in Blue Gene/P is about a 2.5 times improvement in node performance with 4 times more memory per node, enabling the practical solution of very large problems in research and business analytics, where solution time is very critical for the business," said Dr. Srini Chari, managing partner at the IT analyst firm Cabot Partners Group (New York City). "Blue Gene/P is the fastest and most energy-efficient supercomputer on the planet."

Blue Gene/P is composed of modular racks. Four 850 MHz PowerPC 450 processors are integrated on a single Blue Gene/P chip. Each chip is capable of 13.6 billion operations per second. A two-foot-by-two-foot board containing 32 of these chips churns out 435 billion operations per second. 32 boards fit in a 6-foot rack, with each rack running at 13.9 trillion operations per second.

The system can scale beyond a petaflop. The 1-petaflop Blue Gene/P model is a 294,912-processor, 72-rack system operating on an optical network. However, it can potentially scale as high as 884,736-processors in a 216-rack cluster to achieve 3-petaflop performance.

POWER-ful Genes

Both Blue Gene systems use IBM POWER processors. Blue Gene/L uses the PowerPC 440, which is a 700 MHz dual-processor model. The newer Blue Gene/P, on the other hand, has PowerPC 450 (850 MHz), four per chip. The low-power factor is intended to enable greater density as well as a better processor-memory balance. Each processor node on the P model can support up to 2 GB of RAM.

Blue Gene/P, the second generation system, nearly triples the performance of its predecessor, Blue Gene/L, said Turek. Therefore, the older model will no doubt be replaced as the world's fastest computer in the near future.

"Based on IBM's POWER Architecture, the IBM System Blue Gene Solution is optimized for bandwidth, scalability and the ability to handle large amounts of data while consuming a fraction of the power and floor space required by today's fastest systems," said Turek. "A variety of industries are using Blue Gene systems to advance their research capabilities for life sciences, financial modeling, hydrodynamics, quantum chemistry, molecular dynamics, astronomy and space research, and climate modeling."

Chari concurs.

"From a workload perspective, it competes very effectively with extremely large cluster deployments," he said. "Very large cluster deployments are very expensive to manage and maintain, and consume immense amount of power. There are class of very critical scientific, engineering and business analytics problems that can only be solved with ultrascalable systems — the Blue Gene/P is a premier example of this class of servers."

Chari also notes that Blue Gene/P has the fastest interconnect (another major advancement over Blue Gene/L) between the nodes and very high performance I/O. As a result, this makes it a more balanced system compared the Blue Gene/L. Additional improvements with regard to software and scale, serve as the icing on the cake.

"The software environment improves end-user productivity individually and for the enterprise," said Chari. "The system is architected to scale to petaflops, which will become the new metric for supercomputer performance."

He said he expects the system to transition from primarily academic and scientific usage into a much larger sphere.

"A new group of commercial users will be able to take advantage of its new, simplified programming environment and unrivaled energy efficiency," said Turek. "We see commercial interest in the Blue Gene supercomputer developing now in energy and finance, for example. This is on course with an adoption cycle — from government labs to leading enterprises — that we've seen before in the high-performance computing market."

The Blue Gene/P Close Up

Name Blue Gene
Vendor IBM
Platform POWER
Dimensions Height, 1956 mm; Width, 1220 mm; Depth, 966 mm
Processor Details IBM PowerPC 450 850 MHz; four per node
Hard Drives External only
Operating Systems Compute Node: Lightweight proprietary kernel; I/O Node: Linux operating system; Front End and Service Nodes: SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10
Configuration Options All systems are custom-configured
Availability Now available
Warranty Custom warranty

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