504 TFLOPS supercomputer tackling mysteries of the universe

Sun's AMD-based 'Ranger' called the world's second most powerful supercomputer

What is being called the second most powerful supercomputer in the world was unveiled Friday at the University of Texas at Austin.

Ranger, a high-performance computing cluster built by Sun Microsystems, is being formally dedicated by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Texas Advanced Computing Center. The supercomputer is running 15,744 quad-core AMD Opteron processors or a total of 62,976 cores. It also has 123 terabytes of memory and 1.7 petabytes of storage.

David Rich, a spokesman for Advanced Micro Devices, said if the biannual Top 500 supercomputer list were released Friday, Ranger would be ranked as the second most powerful supercomputer in the world.

The supercomputer has a peak performance of 504 teraflops, which is equal to 500 trillion floating-point operations per second. According to the latest Top 500 supercomputer list, which was released last November, IBM's BlueGene/L, housed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is rated the top supercomputer in the world with a peak speed of 596 teraflops.

"It's really exciting. It's really all about the science that people can do," said Karl Schulz, associate director for high-performance computing at the Texas Advanced Computing Center. "Here you've got a research instrument that you don't have to hold back on what you want to do. This really could change what researchers do across the country. Someone could run 30,000 cores at once, and at the same time, we could run a bunch of 1,000 core jobs simultaneously."

Schultz, who also called Ranger the second most powerful supercomputer in the world, noted that as part of the deal with the NSF, any researcher in the US can apply for time on the new supercomputer. A national committee of academics will review the applications. Those approved by the committee can use Ranger for free. So far, according to Schulz, 100 million hours of computing time have been requested, and 400 researchers are already using it.

"We are still gearing up, but we are starting to get exciting results," said Volker Bromm, an assistant professor in the astronomy department at the University of Texas at Austin. "We need to simulate a huge piece of the universe. ... It's a very demanding problem, and up to this point it could not have been done with any machines we had. With the additional boost of power that Ranger has, we can, for the first time, bridge the gap between the huge scales of the universe down to something as small as the solar system."

Bromm is studying the Cosmic Dark Ages, which is a period of a few hundred million years between the Big Bang and the formation of the first stars and galaxies.

"We can probe most of the history of the universe, but the Cosmic Dark Age period is really the final missing gap of our world view," he added. "We're making predictions by taking the initial conditions from the Big Bang. We feed this [information] into the computer and watch evolution for hundreds of millions of years, and we watch the formation of the first stars and galaxies. Ranger is a time machine."

Administrators got Ranger up and running with a rolling start that began at the end of 2007. The whole machine, which cost the NSF $30 million to build and deploy, has been live since Feb. 4, according to Schultz, who added that the government expects to pay another $29 million to operate it over its lifetime.

The University of Texas system is housing Ranger in a 6,000-square-foot machine room in a brand-new building on the Austin campus. Schulz said they feed 3 megawatts into the room, with 2 megawatts going to the supercomputer and 1 megawatt to the cooling system.

Bjorn Andersson, a spokesman for Sun, said the supercomputer is an installation of the company's Constellation System, which is the company's architecture for high-performance computing clusters. He added that the machine has four cluster blades in 82 racks, and there are close to a total of 4,000 blades. Each blade has four CPUs. Andersson also noted that Ranger has "by far the biggest InfiniBand switch on the market," connecting up to 3,456 nodes.

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