by Sumit Gupta

insideHPC is reporting that legislators in Japan are questioning the benefit of spending 112 billion Yen (about $1.4 billion U.S. dollars) for its K supercomputer, the world’s number 1 fastest system according to the Top500 list.

I leave it to the Japanese officials to decide if the K system was a justified expense. But regardless, the fact is that supercomputers do not have to cost nearly this much. In fact, high-performance, energy efficient GPUs can be used to build world-leading systems at a fraction of the cost.

Custom processors don’t cut it for HPC

The 112 billion Yen price tag for the K computer was just the start.  Add to this about 10 billion Yen ($128 million U.S.) each year to power and maintain the mammoth system, and it’s clear that the costs will really start to add up.

The K system costs so much to build because the SPARC CPU at the heart of the machine is an expensive, custom-designed processor.  HPC history has repeatedly shown that the development cost of custom processors is just not economically viable in the high-performance computing market.

On the other hand, hybrid systems that use x86 CPUs accelerated by GPUs, ride on the economics of high-volume consumer and enterprise markets, and provide an economical way to build HPC systems.

Petaflops for a bargain

The Tsubame 2.0  supercomputer at Tokyo Institute of Technology’s Global Scientific Information and Computing Center (GSIC), is a great example of a high-performance, cost-efficient system.  It currently ranks as the #5 system on the Top500 list.

And more importantly, Tsubame 2.0 is central to enabling research and breakthroughs in Japan across a range of fields, ranging from climate research to quantum chemistry, and much more.  In fact, the Tokyo Tech team recently won the coveted Gordon Bell Prize at SC11 for its research on creating lighter, stronger metallic materials using Tsubame 2.0

And, Tsubame it didn’t cost an arm and a leg to develop.

With a modest budget of around $40 million, Tsubame has achieved 1 petaflop of performance at approximately 1.2 megawatts of power consumption, earning it the top spot as the world’s #1 most energy efficient petaflop-class supercomputer (#10 overall) on the Green500 list.

Compare Tsubame’s 1.2 megawatts with that of the 12.7 megawatt required to power the K system, and it adds up to a huge cost difference.

What’s more, once NVIDIA GPUs based on the next-generation Kepler architecture arrive, they will provide a nearly 3x increase in performance per watt over current GPUs.  So, a system the same size as K could be built for one-tenth the cost and would consume less than one-tenth the power.

Today petaflops, tomorrow exaflops

Because of their inherent performance, power efficiency and cost advantages, GPUs will continue to be the go-to technology for tomorrow’s supercomputers. And, they represent the best path for the industry to reach beyond petaflops to exascale computing by the end of this decade.  You can learn more about GPUs and the path to exascale here.

With this kind of energy efficient computing power on the horizon, new dramatic breakthroughs in science and technology that are impossible today, will finally be within reach.

What do you think?   Please share your thoughts and comments below.