History of supercomputing

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A Cray-1 supercomputer preserved at the Deutsches Museum

The history of supercomputing goes back to the early 1920s in the United States with the IBM tabulators at Columbia University and a series of computers at Control Data Corporation (CDC), designed by Seymour Cray to use innovative designs and parallelism to achieve superior computational peak performance.[1] The CDC 6600, released in 1964, is generally considered the first supercomputer.[2][3]

While the supercomputers of the 1980s used only a few processors, in the 1990s, machines with thousands of processors began to appear both in the United States and in Japan, setting new computational performance records.

By the end of the 20th century, massively parallel supercomputers with thousands of "off-the-shelf" processors similar to those found in personal computers were constructed and broke through the teraflop computational barrier.

Progress in the first decade of the 21st century was dramatic and supercomputers with over 60,000 processors appeared, reaching petaflop performance levels.

Beginnings: 1950s and 1960s[edit]

The term "Super Computing" was first used in the New York World in 1929 to refer to large custom-built tabulators that IBM had made for Columbia University.

In 1957 a group of engineers left Sperry Corporation to form Control Data Corporation (CDC) in Minneapolis, MN. Seymour Cray left Sperry a year later to join his colleagues at CDC.[1] In 1960 Cray completed the CDC 1604, the first solid state computer, and the fastest computer in the world[dubious ] at a time when vacuum tubes were found in most large computers.[4]

The CDC 6600 with the system console

Around 1960 Cray decided to design a computer that would be the fastest in the world by a large margin. After four years of experimentation along with Jim Thornton, and Dean Roush and about 30 other engineers Cray completed the CDC 6600 in 1964. Cray switched from germanium to silicon transistors, built by Fairchild Semiconductor, that used the planar process. These did not have the drawbacks of the mesa silicon transistors. He ran them very fast, and the speed of light restriction forced a very compact design with severe overheating problems, which were solved by introducing refrigeration, designed by Dean Roush.[5] Given that the 6600 outran all computers of the time by about 10 times, it was dubbed a supercomputer and defined the supercomputing market when one hundred computers were sold at $8 million each.[4][6]

The 6600 gained speed by "farming out" work to peripheral computing elements, freeing the CPU (Central Processing Unit) to process actual data. The Minnesota FORTRAN compiler for the machine was developed by Liddiard and Mundstock at the University of Minnesota and with it the 6600 could sustain 500 kiloflops on standard mathematical operations.[7] In 1968 Cray completed the CDC 7600, again the fastest computer in the world.[4] At 36 MHz, the 7600 had about three and a half times the clock speed of the 6600, but ran significantly faster due to other technical innovations. They only sold about 50 of the 7600s, not quite a failure. Cray left CDC in 1972 to form his own company.[4] Two years after his departure CDC delivered the STAR-100 which at 100 megaflops was three times the speed of the 7600. Along with the Texas Instruments ASC, the STAR-100 was one of the first machines to use vector processing - the idea having been inspired around 1964 by the APL programming language.[8][9]

The University of Manchester Atlas in January 1963.

In 1956, a team at Manchester University in the United Kingdom, began development of MUSE — a name derived from microsecond engine — with the aim of eventually building a computer that could operate at processing speeds approaching one microsecond per instruction, about one million instructions per second.[10] Mu (or µ) is a prefix in the SI and other systems of units denoting a factor of 10−6 (one millionth).

At the end of 1958 Ferranti agreed to begin to collaborate with Manchester University on the project, and the computer was shortly afterwards renamed Atlas, with the joint venture under the control of Tom Kilburn. The first Atlas was officially commissioned on 7 December 1962, nearly three years after the Cray CDC 6600 supercomputer was introduced, as one of the world's first supercomputers - and was considered to be the most powerful computer in England and for a very short time was considered to be one of the most powerful computers in the world, and equivalent to four IBM 7094s.[11] It was said that whenever England's Atlas went offline half of the United Kingdom's computer capacity was lost.[11] The Atlas Computer pioneered the use of virtual memory and paging as a way to extend the Atlas Computer's working memory by combining its 16 thousand words of primary core memory with an additional 96 thousand words of secondary drum memory.[12] Atlas also pioneered the Atlas Supervisor, "considered by many to be the first recognizable modern operating system".[11]

The Cray era: mid-1970s and 1980s[edit]

A liquid cooled Cray-2 supercomputer

Four years after leaving CDC, Cray delivered the 80 MHz Cray 1 in 1976, and it became the most successful supercomputer in history.[9][13] The Cray 1 used integrated circuits with two gates per chip and was a vector processor which introduced a number of innovations such as chaining in which scalar and vector registers generate interim results which can be used immediately, without additional memory references which reduce computational speed.[5][14] The Cray X-MP (designed by Steve Chen) was released in 1982 as a 105 MHz shared-memory parallel vector processor with better chaining support and multiple memory pipelines. All three floating point pipelines on the X-MP could operate simultaneously.[14]

The Cray-2 released in 1985 was a 4 processor liquid cooled computer totally immersed in a tank of Fluorinert, which bubbled as it operated.[15] It could perform to 1.9 gigaflops and was the world's fastest until 1990 when ETA-10G from CDC overtook it. The Cray 2 was a totally new design and did not use chaining and had a high memory latency, but used much pipelining and was ideal for problems that required large amounts of memory.[14] The software costs in developing a supercomputer should not be underestimated, as evidenced by the fact that in the 1980s the cost for software development at Cray came to equal what was spent on hardware.[16] That trend was partly responsible for a move away from the in-house, Cray Operating System to UNICOS based on Unix.[16]

The Cray Y-MP, also designed by Steve Chen, was released in 1988 as an improvement of the X-MP and could have eight vector processors at 167 MHz with a peak performance of 333 megaflops per processor.[14] In the late 1980s, Cray's experiment on the use of gallium arsenide semiconductors in the Cray-3 did not succeed. Cray began to work on a massively parallel computer in the early 1990s, but died in a car accident in 1996 before it could be completed. Cray Research did, however, produce such computers.[13][15]

Massive processing: the 1990s[edit]

The Cray-2 which set the frontiers of supercomputing in the mid to late 1980s had only 8 processors. In the 1990s, supercomputers with thousands of processors began to appear. Another development at the end of the 1980s was the arrival of Japanese supercomputers, some of which were modeled after the Cray-1.

Rear of the Paragon cabinet showing the bus bars and mesh routers

The SX-3/44R was announced by NEC Corporation in 1989 and a year later earned the fastest in the world title with a 4 processor model.[17] However, Fujitsu's Numerical Wind Tunnel supercomputer used 166 vector processors to gain the top spot in 1994. It had a peak speed of 1.7 gigaflops per processor.[18][19] The Hitachi SR2201 on the other hand obtained a peak performance of 600 gigaflops in 1996 by using 2048 processors connected via a fast three-dimensional crossbar network.[20][21][22]

In the same timeframe the Intel Paragon could have 1000 to 4000 Intel i860 processors in various configurations, and was ranked the fastest in the world in 1993. The Paragon was a MIMD machine which connected processors via a high speed two-dimensional mesh, allowing processes to execute on separate nodes; communicating via the Message Passing Interface.[23] By 1995 Cray was also shipping massively parallel systems, e.g. the Cray T3E with over 2,000 processors, using a three-dimensional torus interconnect.[24][25]

The Paragon architecture soon led to the Intel ASCI Red supercomputer in the United States, which held the top supercomputing spot to the end of the 20th century as part of the Advanced Simulation and Computing Initiative. This was also a mesh-based MIMD massively-parallel system with over 9,000 compute nodes and well over 12 terabytes of disk storage, but used off-the-shelf Pentium Pro processors that could be found in everyday personal computers. ASCI Red was the first system ever to break through the 1 teraflop barrier on the MP-Linpack benchmark in 1996; eventually reaching 2 teraflops.[26]

Petaflop computing in the 21st century[edit]

Main article: Petascale computing

Significant progress was made in the first decade of the 21st century and it was shown that the power of a large number of small processors can be harnessed to achieve high performance, e.g. as in System X's use of 1,100 Apple Power Mac G5 computers quickly assembled in the summer of 2003 to gain 12.25 teraflops.[27][28]

The efficiency of supercomputers continued to increase, but not dramatically so. The Cray C90 used 500 kilowatts of power in 1991, while by 2003 the ASCI Q used 3,000 kW while being 2,000 times faster, increasing the performance per watt 300 fold.[29]

In 2004 the Earth Simulator supercomputer built by NEC at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) reached 35.9 teraflops, using 640 nodes, each with eight proprietary vector processing chips.[30]

The IBM Blue Gene supercomputer architecture found widespread use in the early part of the 21st century, and 27 of the computers on the TOP500 list used that architecture. The Blue Gene approach is somewhat different in that it trades processor speed for low power consumption so that a larger number of processors can be used at air cooled temperatures. It can use over 60,000 processors, with 2048 processors "per rack", and connects them via a three-dimensional torus interconnect.[31][32]

Progress in China has been rapid, in that China placed 51st on the TOP500 list in June 2003, then 14th in November 2003 and 10th in June 2004 and then 5th during 2005, before gaining the top spot in 2010 with the 2.5 petaflop Tianhe-I supercomputer.[33][34]

In July 2011 the 8.1 petaflop Japanese K computer became the fastest in the world using over 60,000 commercial scalar SPARC64 VIIIfx processors housed in over 600 cabinets. The fact that K computer is over 60 times faster than the Earth Simulator, and that the Earth Simulator ranks as the 68th system in the world 7 years after holding the top spot demonstrates both the rapid increase in top performance and the widespread growth of supercomputing technology worldwide.[35][36][37]

Historical TOP500 table[edit]

This is a list of the computers which appeared at the top of the Top500 list since 1993.[38] The "Peak speed" is given as the "Rmax" rating.

Rapid growth of supercomputers performance, based on data from top500.org site. The logarithmic y-axis shows performance in GFLOPS.
  Combined performance of 500 largest supercomputers
  Fastest supercomputer
  Supercomputer on 500th place
YearSupercomputerPeak speed
1993Fujitsu Numerical Wind Tunnel124.50 GFLOPSNational Aerospace Laboratory, Tokyo, Japan
1993Intel Paragon XP/S 140143.40 GFLOPSDoE-Sandia National Laboratories, New Mexico, USA
1994Fujitsu Numerical Wind Tunnel170.40 GFLOPSNational Aerospace Laboratory, Tokyo, Japan
1996Hitachi SR2201/1024220.4 GFLOPSUniversity of Tokyo, Japan
Hitachi CP-PACS/2048368.2 GFLOPSUniversity of Tsukuba, Tsukuba, Japan
1997Intel ASCI Red/91521.338 TFLOPSDoE-Sandia National Laboratories, New Mexico, USA
1999Intel ASCI Red/96322.3796 TFLOPS
2000IBM ASCI White7.226 TFLOPSDoE-Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California, USA
2002NEC Earth Simulator35.86 TFLOPSEarth Simulator Center, Yokohama, Japan
2004IBM Blue Gene/L70.72 TFLOPSDoE/IBM Rochester, Minnesota, USA
2005136.8 TFLOPSDoE/U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration,
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California, USA
280.6 TFLOPS
2007478.2 TFLOPS
2008IBM Roadrunner1.026 PFLOPSDoE-Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, USA
1.105 PFLOPS
2009Cray Jaguar1.759 PFLOPSDoE-Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee, USA
2010Tianhe-IA2.566 PFLOPSNational Supercomputing Center, Tianjin, China
2011Fujitsu K computer10.51 PFLOPSRIKEN, Kobe, Japan
2012IBM Sequoia16.32 PFLOPSLawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California, USA
2012Cray Titan17.59 PFLOPSOak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee, USA
2013NUDT Tianhe-233.86 PFLOPSGuangzhou, China

Export controls[edit]

The CoCom and its later replacement, the Wassenaar Arrangement, legally regulated - required licensing and approval and record-keeping; or banned entirely - the export of high-performance computers (HPCs) to certain countries. Such controls have become harder to justify, leading to loosening of these regulations. Some have argued these regulations were never justified.[39][40][41][42][43][44]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Hardware software co-design of a multimedia SOC platform by Sao-Jie Chen, Guang-Huei Lin, Pao-Ann Hsiung, Yu-Hen Hu 2009 ISBN pages 70-72
  2. ^ History of computing in education by John Impagliazzo, John A. N. Lee 2004 ISBN 1-4020-8135-9 page 172 [1]
  3. ^ The American Midwest: an interpretive encyclopedia by Richard Sisson, Christian K. Zacher 2006 ISBN 0-253-34886-2 page 1489 [2]
  4. ^ a b c d Wisconsin Biographical Dictionary by Caryn Hannan 2008 ISBN 1-878592-63-7 pages 83-84 [3]
  5. ^ a b The Supermen, Charles Murray, Wiley & Sons, 1997.
  6. ^ A history of modern computing by Paul E. Ceruzzi 2003 ISBN 978-0-262-53203-7 page 161 [4]
  7. ^ Frisch, Michael (Dec 1972). "Remarks on Algorithms". Communications of the ACM 15 (12): 1074.
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  9. ^ a b Readings in computer architecture by Mark Donald Hill, Norman Paul Jouppi, Gurindar Sohi 1999 ISBN 978-1-55860-539-8 page 41-48
  10. ^ The Atlas, University of Manchester, retrieved 21 September 2010 
  11. ^ a b c Lavington, Simon (1998), A History of Manchester Computers (2 ed.), Swindon: The British Computer Society, pp. 41–52, ISBN 978-1-902505-01-5 
  12. ^ R. J. Creasy, "The origin of the VM/370 time-sharing system", IBM Journal of Research & Development, Vol. 25, No. 5 (September 1981), p. 486
  13. ^ a b Milestones in computer science and information technology by Edwin D. Reilly 2003 ISBN 1-57356-521-0 page 65
  14. ^ a b c d Parallel computing for real-time signal processing and control by M. O. Tokhi, Mohammad Alamgir Hossain 2003 ISBN 978-1-85233-599-1 pages 201-202
  15. ^ a b The Supermen, Charles Murray, Wiley & Sons, 1997
  16. ^ a b Knowing machines: essays on technical change by Donald MacKenzie 1998 ISBN 0-262-63188-1 page 149-151
  17. ^ Computing methods in applied sciences and engineering by R. Glowinski, A. Lichnewsky ISBN 0-89871-264-5 page 353-360
  18. ^ TOP500 Annual Report 1994.
  19. ^ N. Hirose and M. Fukuda (1997). "Numerical Wind Tunnel (NWT) and CFD Research at National Aerospace Laboratory". Proceedings of HPC-Asia '97. IEEE Computer Society. doi:10.1109/HPC.1997.592130. 
  20. ^ H. Fujii, Y. Yasuda, H. Akashi, Y. Inagami, M. Koga, O. Ishihara, M. Kashiyama, H. Wada, T. Sumimoto, Architecture and performance of the Hitachi SR2201 massively parallel processor system, Proceedings of 11th International Parallel Processing Symposium, April 1997, Pages 233-241.
  21. ^ Y. Iwasaki, The CP-PACS project, Nuclear Physics B - Proceedings Supplements, Volume 60, Issues 1-2, January 1998, Pages 246-254.
  22. ^ A.J. van der Steen, Overview of recent supercomputers, Publication of the NCF, Stichting Nationale Computer Faciliteiten, the Netherlands, January 1997.
  23. ^ Scalable input/output: achieving system balance by Daniel A. Reed 2003 ISBN 978-0-262-68142-1 page 182
  24. ^ Cray Sells First T3E-1350 Supercomputer to PhillipsPetroleum Business Wire, Monday, August 7, 2000 [5]
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  27. ^ TOP500
  28. ^ Varadarajan, S. System X: building the Virginia Tech supercomputer in Proceedings. 13th International Conference on Computer Communications and Networks, 2004. ICCCN 2004. ISBN 0-7803-8814-3
  29. ^ Wu-chun Feng, 2003 Making a Case for Efficient Supercomputing in ACM Queue Magazine, Volume 1 Issue 7, 10-01-2003 doi 10.1145/957717.957772 [7]
  30. ^ Sato, Tetsuya (2004). "The Earth Simulator: Roles and Impacts". Nuclear Physics B Proceedings Supplements 129: 102. doi:10.1016/S0920-5632(03)02511-8. 
  31. ^ Euro-Par 2005 parallel processing: 11th International Euro-Par Conference edited by José Cardoso Cunha, Pedro D. Medeiros 2005 ISBN 978-3-540-28700-1 pages 560-567
  32. ^ IBM uncloaks 20 petaflops BlueGene/Q super The Register November 22, 2010
  33. ^ Graham, Susan L.; Snir, Marc; Patterson, Cynthia A. (2005). Getting up to speed: the future of supercomputing. p. 188. ISBN 0-309-09502-6. 
  34. ^ New York Times
  35. ^ "Japanese supercomputer 'K' is world's fastest". The Telegraph. 20 June 2011. Retrieved 20 June 2011. 
  36. ^ "Japanese ‘K’ Computer Is Ranked Most Powerful". The New York Times. 20 June 2011. Retrieved 20 June 2011. 
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  39. ^ "Complexities of Setting Export Control Thresholds: Computers".
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  43. ^ "Export Controls for High Performance Computers". 2011.
  44. ^ Jeff Blagdon. "US removes sanctions on computer exports to Iran". 2013.