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Japanese supercomputer Fugaku crowned the world’s most powerful

Japan remains a relatively small player in supercomputing. China placed 226 systems in the latest Top500 list; the US total was 114, although they accounted for a greater share of aggregate computing power.

But Japan has a long history of pushing the state of the art in computing. A prominent example is the K Supercomputer, its predecessor at Riken, which took the No. 1 spot on the Top500 list in 2011 before being displaced the next year by a system at Livermore.

“The predecessor was just a knockout,” said Steve Conway, a veteran analyst of the supercomputer market who is a senior adviser at the firm Hyperion Research. “People are expecting this to be very good also.”

Horst Simon, who has studied Fugaku as deputy director of research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, called it a “very remarkable, very admirable” product. But it may not last long as the world’s fastest supercomputer in view of forthcoming Department of Energy systems at Oak Ridge and Livermore and likely advances in China, he said.

Fugaku, another name for Mount Fuji, required some lofty spending. The six-year budget for the system and related technology development totalled about $US1 billion ($1.4 billion), compared with the $US600 million price tags for the biggest planned US systems.

The machine may also make waves because of its computer chips. Fujitsu, Riken’s partner in developing Fugaku, chose to design processors using the basic technology at the heart of billions of smartphones. It licensed designs from ARM, a company long based in Britain that is now owned by the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank.

The Japanese machine carried out 2.8 times more calculations per second than an IBM system at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

The Japanese machine carried out 2.8 times more calculations per second than an IBM system at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.Credit:Bloomberg

By contrast, most supercomputers use microprocessors that evolved from the chips that Intel and Advanced Micro Devices first sold for PCs. The most powerful machines have been accelerated using more specialised chips, such as the Nvidia graphics processors used to run video games and, more recently, artificial intelligence applications.

ARM licensees have tried for years to gain a foothold in data centres without much success. But the cloud service operated by Amazon has begun aggressively promoting ARM-based offerings.

Christopher Bergey, senior vice president of ARM’s infrastructure business, predicts more gains in high-performance computing. For one thing, the longtime supercomputer maker Cray, recently bought by Hewlett Packard Enterprise, plans to sell systems based on Fujitsu’s ARM-based chips.

Fugaku “is the culmination of almost 10 years of investment and work,” Bergey said. “It’s a pretty exciting time.”

The Top500 list, compiled by researchers in the United States and Germany, is being released to coincide with a supercomputing event that is ordinarily held in Frankfurt, Germany, but that is going virtual this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The New York Times

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