NEC, Hitachi snag Japan’s supercomputer debut

May 18, 2009 – The government’s ¥115B (US $1.21B) next-generation supercomputer project, supported as the nation’s triumphant return to global prowess, is headed back to the drawing board thanks to the departure of key participants NEC and Hitachi citing “financial reasons,” according to local reports.

The original goal was for the supercomputer project, conceived in the fall of 2006 and spearheaded by government-backed research institute Riken, to achieve a mindbending 10-petaflops (10 quadrillion floating point operations/sec), far surpassing the 1.105 petaflop/sec capabilities of IBM’s “Roadrunner” system at Los Alamos National Labs in the US, which currently holds the top spot in global supercomputers (as of Nov. 2008; an updated lists is due out in June). Japan’s original “Earth Simulator,” built in 2002 (also through a government-backed project) and the world’s supercomputing king for a couple of years, now sits at 73rd and just the fifth-most powerful system in Japan, though a pending upgrade is expected to vault it back up into the top 20 global rankings.

The new Japanese system, now in the final stages of design, was to be up and running in Kobe around the end of the 2010 fiscal year (2011), with NEC and Hitachi developing one CPU for the machine (each contributing >¥10B/$105.1M), and Fujitsu developing another, the Nikkei notes. But the costs proved too much to stomach for the two companies in the current lousy fiscal environment (NEC lost nearly ¥300B/$3B last year). NEC was not only deeply involved in the system’s design, its vector processor, also central to its Earth Simulator system, was a main component of the new machine’s architecture, the Nikkei noted.

Fujitsu, though, apparently will stay on, citing the importance of “build[ing] up know-how related to making central processing units,” the Nikkei cited a company source as saying. (The company just debuted a new 45nm-based eight-core CPU capable of performing 128B computations/sec., about 2.5× faster than Intel’s fastest chip while consuming two-thirds less power, the paper noted; the Kyodo News suggested this new chip could also find a home in the supercomputer project.) The company’s scalar processor technology thus will play a bigger role in the system’s architecture, though more burden on Fujitsu could delay the project even further, the Nikkei notes.

“It is not often that the government is forced to review such a large project due to poor corporate earnings,” writes the Nikkei. “In light of this drastic development, it may be wise to critically examine the Ministry of Technology’s supercomputer strategy.” The Kyodo News agrees: “With the two electronics giants leaving the project, the government will likely face a fundamental review of the project to develop the world’s fastest supercomputers.”


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