Fujitsu will ditch SPARC chips for the ARM architecture for the next generation of the K supercomputer that currently is the fifth-fastest system in the world.
At the ISC High Performance 2016 supercomputing show this week in Frankfurt, Germany, Fujitsu officials said the successor to the current K computer (pictured), which is housed at the Riken Advanced Institute for Computational Science in Japan, will be an exascale system that is expected to be operational in 2020.
The future supercomputer, which officials are referring to as Post-K, will be built by Fujitsu and the government-funded Riken facility, reportedly through $1.24 billion from the Japanese government. A key part of Fujitsu’s announcement is that the Post-K system will be powered by processors based on ARM’s 64-bit ARMv8 architecture rather than the SPARC64 chips that currently drive the K computer.
The choice to swing to the ARM architecture was based on a broad array of factors, including the need to keep power consumption and costs down while still driving the performance needed for the massive system. ARM’s low-power architecture can be found in most smartphones and tablets on the market today, and the company and its chip-making partners for the past several years have been pushing to develop systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) for data center systems, including servers, storage appliances and networking gear. They’ve argued that the low-power nature of the architecture can help drive down the power-per-watt of systems when compared with other architectures, including SPARC and Intel’s x86 chips.
Fujitsu seems to have agreed, according to Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64.
“Power-per-watt matters” in exascale computing, Brookwood told eWEEK. “You need to keep the power down. You need to get the power-per-watt down, down, down.”
The decision to go with ARM is certainly a blow to Oracle, which inherited the SPARC architecture when it bought Sun Microsystems in 2010 for $7.9 billion. Industry observers expected then-CEO Larry Ellison to ditch the hardware business and keep his company’s focus squarely on software assets like Java. However, Ellison kept the hardware business, building up a portfolio of tightly integrated hardware-software solutions and offering an aggressive roadmap for SPARC.
Oracle also extended the SPARC development pact with Fujitsu, which had had a similar agreement with Sun before the acquisition. However, Fujitsu’s decision to shift to ARM for the Post-K supercomputer will essentially end Fujitsu’s development of its SPARC64 processors, industry analysts said. Fujitsu’s decision also puts Oracle in a difficult position as the only vendor using the SPARC architecture in a market where Intel is dominant and ARM can point to multiple server chip partners, including Advanced Micro Devices, Qualcomm, Applied Micro and Cavium. Even IBM is looking to partners to extend the reach of its Power architecture via the OpenPower effort, though IBM is the primary developer of the chip itself. ARM creates the chip design and then licenses that design to its chip-making partners.
The SPARC architecture also is used in a segment of the server market that is shrinking as more enterprises turn to Intel’s x86-based products.
“ARM’s ecosystem is growing by leaps and bounds,” Brookwood said. “The SPARC ecosystem is kind of stagnant. … I think one of the real downsides for SPARC is that Oracle/Sun could point to Fujitsu and say, ‘See? We’re not the only ones.'”
That won’t be the case any longer. Ellison is pouring a lot of money into developing future versions of SPARC, but at this point, “it’s only Oracle that’s pushing it,” he said.
Fujitsu Chooses ARM Over SPARC for Its Next Supercomputer
Fujitsu’s decision isn’t good news for Intel, either. Fujitsu uses Intel chips in some of its systems—the company announced this week that it will run Intel’s new Xeon Phi 7200 “Knights Landing” processors in its upcoming Primergy CX1640 M1 server nodes for high-performance computing (HPC) workloads—but opted for ARM for the Post-K supercomputer.
“Intel should be concerned because Fujitsu clearly feels they need to still hedge with another architecture and they wouldn’t if they felt Intel covered all the bases,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group, wrote in an email to eWEEK. “On the other hand, ARM still isn’t established in this space yet and Fujitsu isn’t abandoning Intel for ARM. This is likely showing more dissatisfaction with Oracle by far than Intel. So they wanted off SPARC, already had Intel and Power was too close to [SPARC], thus [they] ended up with ARM for a hedge for customers who want something more cutting edge than a mainstream solution.”
Intel is the dominant player in the server chips space, with more than 97 percent of the market. However, organizations are looking for a second chip supplier, and both ARM and IBM and the OpenPower group are looking to be that x86 alternative.
Insight 64’s Brookwood also noted that with the move to ARM, Fujitsu engineers can develop the company’s own chips based on the ARM architecture rather than having to take the Intel processors and innovate around such components as interconnect and memory. In addition, letting engineers who spent 20 years helping develop SPARC go to work with the ARM architecture “is really going to beef up the high end of ARM-based offerings,” he said.
Fujitsu already is an ARM partner, manufacturing other components based on the architecture. These will be the first ARM-based server chips for the OEM.
The Post-K supercomputer reportedly will be 100 times faster than the current K system, which offers 10.5 petaflops (quadrillion calculations per second) of performance and is powered by 705,024 SPARC64 VIIIfx cores. The new system is due to have a performance of 1,000 petaflops. By comparison, the number-one system on the Top500 list of the world’s fastest supercomputers, the Sunway TaihuLight system in China, offers more than 93 petaflops of performance. That system has almost 10.7 million processor cores, and is powered by the Sunway SW26010 chips developed and manufactured in China.