Silicon Valley is power behind supercomputers
The advanced machines are used to crunch massive amounts of data.
Silicon Valley is famed for spawning the desktop, mobile and cloud computing revolutions. What is less known is that it’s one of the nerve centers for building the world’s fastest numbercrunchers. Once confined to big national laboratories, supercomputers are now in demand to crunch massive amounts of data for industries such as oil exploration, finance and online sales. The valley’s strong hand in that business was highlighted in April when Intel landed the prime contract to design a $200-million supercomputer named Aurora to be housed at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. Aurora, developed in partnership with Cray of Seattle, is likely to become the world’s fastest supercomputer when it goes online in 2018. With Aurora’s new architecture, the Santa Clara chip company appears to be taking aim at a bigger slice of what will soon be a $15-billion to $20-billion commercial market for “high-performance” computers that can give a company a competitive edge. “Right now in the oil and gas industry, there’s an arms race to see who can get the biggest supercomputer,” said analyst Steve Conway of the research firm International Data Corp. Energy companies use supercomputers to pinpoint oil deposits. Car companies use them to crash virtual cars in safety tests. Procter & Gamble uses high-performance computing to design detergents and shampoo and even potato chips.
Among the valley’s supercomputer makers or component suppliers:
Silicon Graphics International in Milpitas makes systems for national laboratories — there’s one at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View — and private industry.
Intel already supplies the chips for close to 95% of all high-performance machines, which includes supercomputers and their slightly less powerful cousins, according to Intersect360, a Sunnyvale consulting firm.
Hewlett-Packard ranks just ahead of IBM as a supplier of the world’s fastest supercomputers, according to a Top 500 list maintained by Berkeley researchers. It had 35% of the revenue from high-performance systems sold last year, according to International Data Corp.
Nvidia in Santa Clara supplies accelerator chips — something like the turbocharger in a car — used in a growing number of supercomputers. Its “Tesla” processors are used in machines at Google, Facebook and Baidu for speech, video and image recognition.
AMD in Sunnyvale makes the Opteron processor that powers the Titan supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and is used in Cray’s powerful XE6 super-
8 Mellanox Technologies in Sunnyvale makes leadingedge networking gear for high-performance computers and is combining with IBM and Nvidia to build two new supercomputers for the U.S Department of Energy’s labs at Oak Ridge and Livermore, Calif.
Think of a supercomputer as a cluster of tens of thousands of Mac workstations performing together like an orchestra to process billions and trillions of bits of data every second, sometimes for hundreds of users.
Supercomputer prices run from $500,000 to more than $100 million. Some are general-purpose machines that can perform tasks like 3-D modeling while hosting large numbers of users at the same time. Others are used for one task, such as running a cloud-based service.
“There used to be a few hundred supercomputers sold in the world each year because the prices were so high — $10 million and up,” said analyst Conway of IDC. But prices have fallen so sharply for powerful machines that “these days, companies and small organizations that wouldn’t think of getting one before can do so.”
INTEL SUPPLIES the chips for close to 95% of all high-performance machines.