Intel gets in supercomputer game

NY Times/Austin American Statesman:
With the aid of the Chinese military, Intel has won itself big bragging rights: the world’s fastest supercomputer runs entirely on Intel semiconductors. It is the first time in 15 years, Intel says, that an all-Intel machine has held top honors.

More important is what this news says about computing: the kind of work done by supercomputers is increasingly applicable to the kind of work done by business. Intel doesn’t want to sell its biggest computers to researchers and the world’s armies; it wants to sell them to companies like Amazon for its Amazon Web Services.

The new computer, called a Tianhe-2, or Milkyway-2, was built at the National University of Defense Technology in Changsha, China. At its peak, it can perform at a speed of nearly 55 petaflops – with a petaflop akin to one thousand trillion instructions per second. The previous record-holder, announced last November, had a peak performance of 27.1 petaflops. Five years ago, a single petaflop machine was record-breaking.

In addition to the usual supercomputing tasks like weather analysis or geophysical research, makers of the new supercomputer also listed its capabilities for Big Data analysis. The Tianhe-2 can process 600 terabytes of data on just 1,024 of its 16,000 computing nodes.

Details on the machine were first revealed at a meeting of supercomputing specialists in late May. Its formal ranking as the world’s fastest was announced this month at a meeting in Germany, where Intel also laid out its business vision.

Intel officials say many ordinary businesses, possibly even consumers, will soon be accessing what were once the most expensive and rarefied computers.

“The insatiable need for computing is driving this” rapid development, said Raj Hazra, the head of Intel’s high performance computing business.

Even traditional uses appear to be affected by both the power of the machines, and a new sensibility of the way problems should be addressed. Hazra noted that this much power enables atmospheric climate models to also take into account the effect of ocean behavior as well. Geologists can examine not just rock formations, but the behavior of gasses and liquids within different rocks.

This ecosystem view of data analysis has its own parallels in the commercial world. Increasingly, companies are deploying sensors across many environments to see how their products perform in the real world, or looking at mixtures of human and machine behavior to analyze things like traffic flow.
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This type of computing also means fewer dry holes for the energy exploration business.  They can be used for facial recognition software as well.  How long will it takes until we have a desk top version of a supercomputer?

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