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The Processors of Petascale

HPC Wire (04/10/12) Michael Feldman

Historical trends suggest that the processor architecture of future exascale systems will be variegated, based on the diversification of the current crop of petascale systems. Of the 20 currently operational petascale supercomputers, eight employ X86 central processing units (CPUs) exclusively, seven use an x86/graphical processing unit combination, two use Fujitsu’s SPARC64 CPUs, one uses the Chinese ShenWei SW1600 processor, one employs IBM’s PowerPC 450 CPU, and the last system uses the PowerXCell 8i alongside AMD x86 CPUs. The latest petascale system is the Oakleaf-FX, a Fujitsu machine based on its PRIMEHPC FX10 servers. The Oakleaf-FX is the first supercomputer installed with Fujitsu’s newest SPARC64 IXfx CPUs. The variety of these petascale machines implies that, if historical trends recur, the first exascale systems will be driven by exotic processors, but eventually more commodity-based processors will assume control. The biggest current limitation for large supercomputers is power consumption, so other processor architectures such as ARM could gain prominence. The Chinese are developing their own series of high-performance computing processors, which could lead to a game change in the supercomputing industry before the end of the decade.

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