JOSE, Calif. — Silicon Valley is famed for spawning
the desktop, mobile and cloud computing revolutions.
What is less well known is that it’s one of the nerve
centers for building the world’s fastest number-crunchers.
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
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.
developed in partnership with Cray of Seattle, will
likely 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.
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., citing one industry that has been especially
aggressive in buying the machines.
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. Supercomputer maker Cray says "at
least one" Major League Baseball team uses one of
its machines to see, among other things, how batters
fare against different types of pitchers.
the valley’s supercomputer makers or component
Graphics International in Milpitas makes systems for
national laboratories — there’s one at the NASA Ames
Research Center in Mountain View — and private
industry, including PayPal. In one case, a query that
took 14 minutes to run on an older system was
accomplished in less than a second on an SGI
supercomputer, according to Ryan Quick, principal
architect in advanced technologies at PayPal.
of SGI’s big initiatives is to leverage much of the
experimental work we’ve done in developing the
biggest, baddest systems out there and democratizing
that into a package well-suited for the enterprise
world," said Brian Freed, vice president of
already supplies the chips for close to 95 percent of
all high-performance machines, which includes
supercomputers and their slightly less powerful cousins,
according to Intersect360, a Sunnyvale consulting firm.
In the mid-1990s, Intel benefited from a move by system
makers to using industry-standard parts such as Intel’s
processors, according to Addison Snell of Intersect360.
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 percent of
the revenue from high-performance systems sold last
year, according to International Data Corp.
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. With $279
million in high-performance computing revenue last year,
"we are just beginning this era," said Sumit
Gupta, Nvidia’s general manager of the Tesla
accelerated computing business.
headquartered 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 supercomputer.
Technologies, in Sunnyvale, makes leading-edge
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.
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of a supercomputer as a cluster of tens of thousands of
Mac workstations performing together like a symphony
orchestra to process billions and trillions of bits of
data every second, sometimes for hundreds of users.
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. A second type is used for one task, such as
running a cloud-based service.
whole class of things start to become practical as the
cost of computing drops," said Alan Gara, an Intel
fellow at the giant chip firm’s Santa Clara
headquarters and lead system architect for the Aurora
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."
Nowadays, thousands of high-performance machines are
sold every year.
they can provide an edge over competitors, some
companies don’t want their supercomputers publicized.
of the bigger companies really depend upon
supercomputers to do lot of their work," said Bill
Mannel, head of HP’s Apollo server team in Houston,
who added that "whether it’s the oil, auto or
aircraft industry, it’s become such a core part of
their development that they won’t even share details
of how much they have or who they buy from."
companies with valley headquarters have far-flung
research and manufacturing sites, but this area is a key
center of innovation said Scot Schultz at Mellanox
Technologies. "I think it’s largely because most
of the core tech providers have a presence here and have
been a part of the Bay Area community here for so
— whose operations require massive amounts of
computing power — is pushing the frontiers in a
collaboration on a quantum computer project with NASA
Ames and the Universities Space Research Association.
The hope is to develop a radically different computer
that in theory could do certain problems in a few days
that would take today’s computers "millions of
years" to perform.
you thought IBM’s Watson on Jeopardy was
impressive," Conway said, "where things are
headed will totally leave it in the dust."