How to Upgrade a Supercomputer, 37,376 Chips at a Time
Date: Friday, November 20, 2009 @ 22:51:17 EST
Topic: Computers

Priya Ganapati

Cray Jaguar

The most powerful supercomputer in the world, the Cray XT5 — aka ‘Jaguar’ — is a computing monster with the ability to clock 1.759 petaflops (1,759 trillion) calculations per second.

So just what exactly is inside this machine?

About 37,376 AMD processors, to begin with. The Jaguar has 255,584 processing cores and is built using AMD six-core Istanbul Opteron chips running at 2.6 gigahertz.

That’s a step up from the four-core AMD chips that the computer used to have.

“The most interesting thing about the Jaguar is that they have actually upgraded an existing supercomputer,” says John Fruehe, director of Opteron product marketing for AMD. “And they have managed to double its speed.”

Engineers replaced quad-core AMD processors with six-core chips (see below for a video showing the upgrade process). The nearly $20 million upgrade has created a high-performance computing system that is now deployed by the Department of Energy and housed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Jaguar beat IBM’s “Roadrunner” supercomputer to the top list, according to a ranking of the top 500 supercomputers in the world that will be unveiled Tuesday at a conference.

The Jaguar has a system memory of 362 terabytes, which is almost three times that of the second largest system. It can read and write files at 284 gigabytes per second and uses a 10-petabyte shared file system. Most of those components remain unchanged from the earlier versions of Jaguar.

“That’s the beauty of Cray’s architecture,” says Fruehe. “Nothing else needs to be replaced.”

Upgrading the 37,376 processors inside the Jaguar took just about a week, explains Fruehe. Eight chips are housed on a board along with heat sinks. Once the heat sinks are removed, the processors are unclipped and the upgraded chips are fit in.

“It takes about five minutes to upgrade each board,” says Fruehe of the 4670 boards that the system has. “The boards are mounted in individual cabinets and they take sections offline to upgrade them.”

AMD shipped out the first batch of six-core processors in June.

To see the process up, close and personal, check out a video that shows a Cray technician upgrading the Kraken, another Cray XT5 system. The Kraken currently ranks third on the top 500 supercomputers list.

AMD says it will offer the first eight-core and 12-core x86 processors for high performance computers early next year.


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