TOP500 founder looks back at high performance computing (HPC)

Hans Werner Meuer kindly let us abstract his recent history of HPC and the initiative.

Hans Werner Meuer of the University of Mannheim and (his own) high performance computing (HPC) consultancy Prometeus has just published a paper* looking back on the last fifteen years of supercomputing. Prometeus is behind the authoritative ‘TOP500’ list of supercomputer sites**, launched in 1993. The Top500 evolved from an earlier ranking from the University of Mannheim. Today the List uses the Rmax Linpack matrix math benchmark to evaluate HPC performance. The List is published twice yearly in June and November.


One reasons for TOP500’s success is competition between countries, manufacturers and computing sites. The US led the field in the early days of the list with 45% of all TOP500 installations. The most recent list shows the US increasing its lead—with 56%. Japan, an early leader has fallen back to be overtaken by the UK with a 9.6% share, and Germany, with a 6.2% share. Of the manufacturers, Cray Research and Fujitsu were the early leaders. Today, IBM has a clear lead with a 46.4% share. HP is N° 2 with 33.2%, and the leader of 1993. Cray is N° 3 with 2.8%.

Deep Blue

Meuer highlights a couple of outstanding machines. Coming in at N° 259 on the 9th TOP500 list was IBM’s Deep Blue. Each of its 32 processors was equipped with 15 special purpose VLSI ‘chess chips***’ and Deep Blue was the first chess computer to beat a reigning world chess champion, Garry Kasparov. Today, according to Meuer, ‘No chess player stands a chance against a computer, even a PC!’ But Meuer’s favourite is the Intel’s ASCI Red (1997), the first Teraflop/s computer. ASCI Red was the US’ response to France’s nuclear weapons tests at the Mururoa atoll and was part of the US government’s commitment to ban nuclear weapons testing. But the 9,632 Pentium II-based massively parallel machine was the last produced by Intel’s supercomputer division.


Until very recently UNIX was the prevalent HPC operating system. Today Linux has taken over this role. Despite Microsoft’s effort to break into this market, according to Meuer, ‘Windows plays no role****.’ The Intel legacy is extremely strong with 71% equipped with Intel processors—particularly the dual and quad core chips. AMD Opterons come in second with 15.6% and IBM Power processors are third with 12.2%. Gigabit Ethernet is the most used interconnect technology followed by InfiniBand. Myrinet, which dominated the market a couple of years ago, is now falling back.


Clusters equip 406 of the Top500 and are challenging the leaders (2 of the Top10 systems are clusters). Massively parallel systems remain the tops in performance with eight systems in the TOP10. HPC performance over the last 15 years has outstripped Moore’s law with a doubling every 14 months for the N° 1 spot. The current N° 1 is the Livermore National Laboratory’s IBM BlueGene/L. Meuer expects the Petaflop/s barrier to be broken in 2008— probably by the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s IBM’s RoadRunner. In 2015 all systems is the TOP500 will be Petaflop/s machines!

Market research

While the TOP500 does not address all facets of HPC, it does provide useful trends and, according to Meuer, is ‘much more reliable than the predictions of market research companies such as IDC, Diebold, etc.’



*** In this context—see our article on programming the IBM Cell Broadband Engine on page 4 of this issue.

**** As readers of Oil IT Journal already know—see our March 2007 editorial.

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