SAUDI ARABIA. Saudi Arabia is building a supercomputer that could rank among the ten most powerful systems in the world. And the country isn't stopping there. It has plans to turn this marquee system for the Middle East into a petascale system in two years, and, beyond that, an exascale system.
The move represents a big leap for Saudi Arabia and the Middle East generally, which, despite massive oil wealth, has not had much of an impact on information technology, except as consumers.
But Saudi Arabia is turning its oil wealth in a new direction. This supercomputer, which is being built by IBM, will be located at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a research university that was announced in 2007 and is due to open in a year from now.
A data centre that will house the supercomputer will be completed in the Summer months next year.
"The best thing about KAUST is we have no legacy systems and no legacy thinking," Majid Al-Ghaslan, the university's interim CIO, said in an interview for Computerworld.
The system, named Shaheen, which is the Arabic word for Peregrine Falcon, is a 16-rack IBM Blue Gene/P System with 65,536 processor cores delivering 222 Teraflops (222 trillion operations per second.)
IBM estimates that Shaheen will rank about number six in the world when completed, but the university also has plans to quickly add capacity. The data centre it is building will be large enough to hold 500 racks, and although that includes space for storage and other IT equipment, there will be a lot of room to grow.
Al-Ghaslan said the system will be used by researchers for a wide range of computational work in life and physical sciences, as well as in high performance-computing research, to improve the performance of code on systems of this type.
The world's largest system, the 'Roadrunner', was built by IBM at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It crossed the petascale mark in June, with 1.026 quadrillion calculations per second.
Saudi Arabia is also aiming for petascale, Al-Ghaslan said. And once a petascale system is reached, it will move to exaflop size, a million trillion, or quntillion, calculations per second.
Asked to explain why the country would need such compute power, Al-Ghaslan said the computing capability would help Saudi Arabia conduct research on its energy supplies. "We have some of the largest oil fields, onshore and offshore, in the world," he said. These are areas of such size that generate huge numbers that take large amounts of computing capability, he said.
Also, the university also wants to establish itself as an important research centre, and Al-Ghaslan said the supercomputer would help attract scientists from around the world. "World class scientists expect world-class facilities," he said.
IBM was picked for the project in part for its work on Roadrunner, and its ability to run codes at petascale speed, said Al-Ghaslan. This supercomputer is being built in the US. at IBM's TJ Watson Research Laboratory in Yorktown Heights, New York, and will be moved next year to Saudi Arabia.
One of the more notable supercomputing developments in that region was in Iran, which last year built a high performance computing system using 216 Opteron chips from Advanced Micro Devices. The system wasn't powerful enough to make the top 500 list. Iran has also used Intel chips to build clusters.