For this computer, the K stands for knockout

June 20, 2011

— Japanese computer geeks are celebrating a comeback after a Fujitsu-built supercomputer set a world speed record — beating the reigning Chinese machine and giving Japan the most powerful computer for the first time in seven years.

The Fujitsu “K” — a play on the Japanese word for 10,000,000 bn, the number of operations per second it is designed to perform — topped the semiannual ranking announced Monday at the International Supercomputing Conference in Hamburg.

“This is proof that our nation’s technology sector is still healthy,” said Ryoji Noyori, project director at Riken, a government-funded research institute that collaborated with Fujitsu. “We have to aim for [the] top spot.”

Japan first took the fastest-computer title in 1990, startling the long-dominant United States. Machines from Fujitsu, NEC and Hitachi traded places at the top of the rankings for years, and an NEC supercomputer, Earth Simulator, held the crown from 2002 to 2004.

But with Japanese industry struggling for 20 years and China moving ahead in economic output, many questioned whether Japan was still up to the task. The K’s government funding was nearly revoked last year, with the minister in charge asking: “What’s wrong with being number two?”

Fujitsu refuses to say how much it has spent, but about 1,000 engineers have worked on various aspects of the K’s hardware and software, all of which was developed in-house.

The earthquake and tsunami in March also created delays. The warehouse-sized K is located in Japan’s western city of Kobe, away from the disaster zone, — but at least two subcontractors in the devastated northeast suffered damage, including one that makes housings for the computer’s 68,544 interlinked central processors.

The K will not be completed until next year. But its current certified speed of 8.16 petaflops (8.16 quadrillion operations a second) is still three times faster than the next-quickest machine, the Tianhe-1A, built by China’s National University of Defense Technology with processors from Nvidia, the California-based graphics chip design company.

Fujitsu and Riken officials said the K would be used for complex computer modeling in pharmaceuticals, material science and climatology.

One of its tasks is likely to be generating simulations of earthquakes and tsunamis. “We want to use this as a catalyst to rebuild Japan,” said Kimihiko Hirao, deputy project director at Riken.

The K is unlikely to keep its title for long, however. U.S. researchers are also working on supercomputers capable of 10 petaflops or more, and one project scheduled for completion next year, from IBM and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is aiming for 20 petaflops.

Financial Times

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