Top500 news: The rise of the GPU

GPU, as in graphics processing unit, don’t get as much credit as CPUs, the supposed “brains” inside the PC. Well, that is slowly changing, particularly as people figure out that the modern GPUs have a lot of raw processing horsepower to more around all those pixels while you play your FPS games.

This week, the latest list of the world’s top 500 supercomputers was announced. What I find interesting about it is that at number 5 is a new Chinese design that marries Intel Xeon CPU chips with AMD/ATI graphics chips. There are thousands of  clusters that contain a pair of CPUs and GPUs connected via Infiniband switches. And perhaps the most interesting thing of all is that they built this hybrid design by underclocking the GPUs: the frequency of GPU core was decreased from 750MHz to 575MHz and the frequency of GPU’s memory was also decreased from 900MHz to 650MHz. Showing the power of gaming processors even further, six systems use IBMs advanced Sony PlayStation 3 Cell processor with 9 cores in their CPUs.

What is interesting about this announcement is that these supercomputers are built from yesterday’s technology: if you are going to assemble a machine based on thousands of chips, you need time to do the integration and the government purchasing. The Cell CPU is several years old. Just wait until the current crop of CPUs and GPUs enter this top500 list in the coming months: you are going to see a lot more hybrid combinations as this Chinese machine take over the top spots, just as the Intel and AMD CPU collections took over from the old fashioned custom mainframe-style supercomputers of our youth.

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