Saudi Arabia unveils grand supercomputer ambitions

Plans a petascale system and more as it seeks top spot on supercomputing's list

Saudi Arabia is building a supercomputer that could rank among the 10 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 region 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 center 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, told 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 No. 6 in the world when completed, but the university also has plans to quickly add capacity. The data center 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 new, 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.

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