The US Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Titan supercomputer, seen here in an undated handout picture, has been named the world's fastest supercomputer in the latest Top 500 computer ranking list. Titan is a Cray XK7 system which achieved 17.59 Petaflops/second (quadrillions of calculations per second). Photo: Supplied/Reuters
Australia has achieved its best ever global supercomputer ranking – a sign that the nation's e-research and high performance computing resources are faring well.
The powerful new Fujitsu Primergy system at the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI) National Facility at the Australian National University debuted at number 24 in the biannual Top 500 supercomputer rankings.
The result improves Australia's previous top ranking of 26 in June 2005, held by another supercomputer housed at the NCI.
The Top 500 rankings, compiled by a group of academics in Germany and the US, are considered a useful way of comparing the state of supercomputing across the world.
The group's releases are highly anticipated within the industry. Many observers have noted the economic benefits of HPC, with International Data Corporation research for the EU finding that a strong supercomputing strategy could contribute an additional two per cent to gross domestic product.
Many countries, such as the US, Japan, China and India have set supercomputing strategies as a national priority.
In the number-one position on the Top 500 supercomputer list was a system called Titan at the US Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Titan is 20 times faster than the supercomputer called Jaguar (also at ORNL), which topped the biannual list in 2009 and 2010. Titan is used for a range of tasks, including nuclear power, fuel combustion and materials research.
At number two was another US supercomputer, Sequoia, housed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. Sequoia is used for research fields including biosecurity, defence and energy.
Japan's K-Computer, which surprised many observers by knocking the US off the top of the list in 2011, came in third. Like most supercomputers, K-Computer is used by researchers investigating a broad range of fields. For Japan's top supercomputer, these fields include disaster prevention and recovery, industrial design, life sciences, drug manufacturing and particle physics.
Mira, another US supercomputer, associated with the country's Department of Energy and housed at the Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, secured fourth place on the Top 500 list. Mira is being used, among other things, to create the largest ever simulation of the universe; a task that requires massive amounts of data and minutely detailed and complex models.
Germany clinched the fifth spot in the rankings with its JuQueen supercomputer, which is used for energy and climate research, medicine and neurosciences, nanotechnology and neutron science, and bio- and geosciences.
The US is by far the biggest user of supercomputers, hosting 250 of the Top 500. It is followed by Asia with 124 and Europe with 105.
China has risen steadily in the rankings in recent years and now hosts 72 supercomputers – including the facilities ranked 8th and 12th – ahead of Japan, UK, France, and Germany.
In total, Australia had seven supercomputers make it in to the November release of the Top 500 list. The most systems Australia has ever had in the Top 500 is 11, in November 2005.
However, this year was the first that two systems have been ranked in the top 50, with a supercomputer called Avoca housed at the Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative (VLSCI) coming in at 33, down just two places from its ranking in the June list.
A CSIRO GPU Cluster system that supports all of the national science body's research efforts received the 183rd rank after first making it on to the list in 2010 at 146.
Another NCI supercomputer called Vayu, which also debuted on the list in 2010 at 51, has retained its place amongst the most powerful in the world, but has continued to slide, ending up at 207 in the latest list.
The two NCI supercomputers on the list are used by more than 1700 researchers working on more than 400 projects that range from physical, earth, biological and chemical sciences to engineering.
The newly installed Fujitsu Primergy supercomputer has 57,472 cores (or central processing units) and dwarfs Australia's first entry on the Top 500 list in 1993 – a system at the Australian National University which had just 32 cores.
Also making the list at number 297 was an Australian Department of Defence supercomputer. While it is unclear how this system is used, Defence is one of Australia's longest-standing users of supercomputers and is known to house a handful of systems simultaneously.
One of the supercomputers that will be used to help crunch the rivers of data created by the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope in Western Australia, a HP-based system housed in a containerised data centre at iVec, was ranked at 395, down from its debut in 2010 at 88.
Rounding-out the list for Australia was an unnamed digital content provider at number 462. Although not identified in any of the latest releases of the Top 500 list, the Sydney company Animal Logic, which helped created films such as Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole and Happy Feet, is a known user of supercomputing resources.