NEC's a record breaker

PC manufacturer NEC Corp. has entered the Guinness Book of Records for its Earth Simulator, the world's fastest computer, laying down the gauntlet for other supercomputer makers.

In tests, authorised by the University of Tennessee, the Earth Simulator recorded speeds of 35.61 trillion calculations per second. The performance is five times faster than that of the previous record holder, the ACSI White System developed by IBM Corp.

The Earth Simulator was built to investigate worldwide environmental problems, such as unusual atmospheric phenomena and global warming. The system uses its processing power to simulate a virtual planet Earth and then create major climate changes to monitor their likely effect and the scale of impact on the planet.

"It's more than 2,000 years since Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the Earth. But our planet is an extremely complex system we are still struggling to understand," said David Hawksett, science and technology judge at Guinness Book of Records.

"The accurate prediction of natural disasters has long been a goal of Earth scientists. With the World's most powerful computer on the case, thousands of lives could be saved each year," added Hawksett.

The Earth Simulator is an ultra-large computer system comprising 640 units of high-performance nodes. It is powered by NEC's semi-conductor technology, which boasts 57 million transistors. The supercomputer covers a floor space of 50x60m and is housed at the Yokohama Institute of Earth Sciences in Japan.

If the Earth Simulator is a bit too powerful for most users' needs, NEC has a retail supercomputer due out in December.

The SX-7 (pictured) boasts a peak vector performance of up to 282.5GFlops (floating point operations per second) per node, which is a more than three times increase over that of the company's SX-6 supercomputer that was launched in October 2001. In its maximum multi-node configuration, the machine has a peak vector performance of 18.1TFlops said NEC.

The performance increases seen in the SX-7 are the result of work in several areas, including an increase in the amount of memory that can be shared in each node. The SX-7 supports up to 256GB of memory per node, up from 64GB in NEC's SX-6, and the maximum data transfer rate has been increased from 256GBps (gigabytes per second) to 1.13TBps (terabytes per second).

Each SX-7 node supports up to 32 processors, which is four times as many as the SX-6, and each of the NEC-developed custom processors has also been improved. They now run at a clock speed of 8.83GFlops, compared to 8GFlops on the SX-6.

Multi-node configurations of the computer can run from two to 64 nodes meaning support for from 16 to 2,048 processors and up to 16TB (terabytes) of memory.

As a member of the SX series, the machine will run software developed for NEC's Super UX supercomputer operating system.

Of course all this power doesn't come cheap and even to rent it will set you back $66,350 a month. Despite this high price NEC hopes to attract orders for around 20 systems in the first year.

Martyn Williams is the Tokyo bureau chief for the IDG News Service.