Bandwidth Needs Drive IBMs Blue Gene/L Supercomputer

By Jeffrey Burt  |  Posted 2004-02-23
IBM is signing up a second customer for its Blue Gene/L supercomputer system, bringing the technology to a Dutch astronomy organization that is building a new powerful radio telescope.

The agreement with ASTRON—or Netherlands Foundation for Radio Astronomy—not only gives IBM a follow-up to its deal with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in Livermore, Calif., but also enables the computer company to showcase the flexibility of the technology.

Blue Gene/L is one of two prongs of IBMs Blue Gene project, an initiative designed to create the worlds fastest computers.

Announced Monday, the computer being built for ASTRON will enable scientists using the Dwingeloo, Netherlands, companys LOFAR (Low Frequency Array) software telescope network to quickly gather and analyze data coming into them from outer space. The supercomputer, which will be completed in the middle of 2005, will have a peak performance of more than 34 trillion calculations per second, or 34 teraflops.

"This will capture the vast amount of data coming in in real time, and processing it as it comes in," said William Pulleyblank, director of exploratory server systems for IBM Re-search.

The ASTRON requirements presented different challenges for IBM than the Livermore lab, Pulleyblank said. The astronomy organization needed a way to pull in vast amounts of data, process it and get it out for analysis immediately, rather than bring in the data for serious number crunching, he said. That meant a greater need for band-width.

So while the Blue Gene supercomputer IBM is building for Livermore will have one I/O note per 64 compute node, the one for ASTRON will have an I/O node per eight compute nodes.

"That means eight times the data bandwidth," Pulleyblank said.

ASTRONs LOFAR project includes stationing 10,000 radio antennas throughout Northern Holland and the German state of Lower Saxony.

The Blue Gene computer will need to gather and distribute the data coming in from those antennas. The supercomputer will be powered by more than 12,000 PowerPC processors and will be able to receive 768 Gigabits of data every second. The antennas and supercomputer will combine to create a massive telescope.

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A key job will be filtering out the superfluous noise—from man-made objects and satellites to distortions created by the atmosphere—and de-ciphering the radio waves that are coming from the outer reaches of the universe, Pulleyblank said.

The goal of the LOFAR project—supported by the Dutch governments Ministry of Education, Culture and Science—is to look back to the begin-nings of the universe 13 billion years ago by picking up and analyzing radio waves that were created around the time of the Big Bang.

"Its as close to time travel as we can get right now," he said.

IBMs Blue Gene project—part of the U.S. Nuclear Security Administrations Advanced Simulation and Computing initiative—is running on two courses. Blue Gene/L is one, with Blue Gene/C—which will be aimed more at specialized applications and a more cost-effective design—is the other.

Eventually, IBM researchers will look at the two designs and decide on the direction for Blue Gene/P, a su-percomputer that IBM says will have a peak performance of 1 petaflop—or 1 quadrillion calculations per second.

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