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Last Updated: Sunday, 2 April 2006, 23:45 GMT 00:45 UK
Boost for UK's superfast computer
By Jonathan Fildes
BBC News technology and science reporter

IBM's Blue Gene/L supercomputer
The most powerful computer in the world has 130,000 processors
Britain's most powerful super computer has received a 52m boost from the government.

When it is built in 2007, the high spec number cruncher will be faster than any in Europe.

The High-End Computing Terascale Resource, or Hector as it is known, will be owned by the Research Councils of the UK.

It will be used by scientists to simulate everything from climate change to atomic structures.

The new supercomputer could run at speeds of up to 100 teraflops and will be able to carry out up to 100 trillion calculations every second, 100,000 times faster than an ordinary computer.

However, it is unlikely to ever be pushed to its limits, achievable only for short bursts of time that are too small for scientists to run their programs properly.

Technical barrier

The next generation machine will supersede two existing supercomputers already used by British scientists.

The CSAR computer, at the University of Manchester, will be decommissioned in June this year, while the more powerful HPCx, run by a consortium led by the University of Edinburgh, will continue to run until December 2008.

Blue Gene/L, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California. (131,072 processors)
Blue Gene/L, IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, New York (40,960 processors)
ASC Purple, Department of Energy, USA (10,240 processors)
Columbia, NASA Ames Research Center, USA (10,160 processors)
Thunderbird, Sandia National Laboratories, USA (8,000 processors)
Science minister Lord Sainsbury announced the government's investment in the supercomputer.

"The computational limits of the existing facilities are now being reached," he said.

"Complex research programmes place increasing demands on the computing power available."

However, it is not just a simple case of building a bigger or faster computer according to Jennifer Houghton, project manager of Hector. Instead, the challenge is helping scientists to design computer programs that are able to run on such a powerful system.

"The technical barrier is getting the codes to scale up," she told the BBC website.

"The challenge of a big system like Hector is being able to utilise its full capability."

Some of the funds being put into the new system will therefore go into training scientists and programmers to unlock this potential.

The location of the new machine has still not been decided.

Most powerful

Hector will be more than six times as powerful as the current fastest machines in the UK. These are owned and operated by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF).

Their two identical computers operate at about 16 and a half teraflops. They run in parallel so that if there is a problem with one, the centre's forecasting ability can continue.

Later this year, they will both be replaced by a pair 80% faster.

However, even the combined power of the new computers will be no match for IBM's Blue Gene/L. This worldbeater is able to perform a staggering 280.6 trillion calculations per second.

The computer has more than 130,000 processors and is installed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

So far, no other supercomputer has broken the 100 teraflops barrier.

Although it already tops the rankings of the list of the Top 500 supercomputers on Earth Blue Gene/L still has not reached its maximum performance, thought to be in excess of 367 teraflops.

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