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Atom Supercomputer


May 20 2011

Intel, when they designed and released the Atom, probably imagined that it would be used for cell phones and possibly very portable computers. I do not think Intel saw the Atom chip as a replacement for their desktop computer, much less as a chip to power a supercomputer.

A supercomputer using Intel Atom chips? You bet. Seamicro is a Silicon Valley startup that makes Atom-powered supercomputers. Their most recent computer takes 256 Intel Atom N570 chips and puts them in a single box.

The cost of a system is pretty steep: $148,000. Compare this to buying 256 ASUS N570-based netbooks, which currently have a street price of $320. Getting the same number of N570 chips by buying 256 netbooks (where each chip also has a 250gig hard disk, a display and keyboard, ports, etc.) is $81,920.

The advantage of a system like this compared to, say, an Itanium-based supercomputer (yes, the Itanium still lives, but who knows for how long), is that the system uses less power per unit of computing power. The other advantage is binary compatibility with x86 applications. Indeed, Seamicro recently upgraded their flagship system to use N570 chips because they wanted to have x86-64 support.

This system is not designed to be a compute cluster, of course--the Atom is not that efficient per watt when it comes to number crunching. Indeed, each one of those Atom chips in Seamicro's cluster has a GMA3150 GPU that is not being used.

If I were Seamciro and wanted to make a low-energy computation supercomputer, I would probably use the AMD C-50 chip (or possibly the AMD E-350). While the C-50's APU is slower than the N570's, the C-50 has the advantage of having a programmable GPU unit. In a C-50 supercomputer, not only can each CPU use its APU to perform numerical calculations, but the GPU could also be programmed to perform calculations.

An Atom supercomputer is an interesting concept and the idea of using low-cost, low-power-usage chips to make a supercomputer is very intriguing.

To post a comment about an entry, send me an email and I may or may not post your comment (with or without editing). Image of Seamicro server obtained from Seamicro's web site.