Supercomputer uses flash storage drives

The San Diego Supercomputer Centre has built a high-performance computer with solid-state drives, which the centre says could help solve science problems faster than systems with traditional hard drives.

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The San Diego Supercomputer Centre has built a high-performance computer with solid-state drives, which the centre says could help solve science problems faster than systems with traditional hard drives.

The flash drive will provide faster data throughput, which should help the supercomputer analyse data an "order-of-magnitude faster" than hard drive-based supercomputers, said Allan Snavely, associate director at SDSC. SDSC is a part of the University of California, San Diego.

"This means it can solve data-mining problems that are looking for the proverbial 'needle in the haystack' more than 10 times faster than could be done on even much larger supercomputers that still rely on older 'spinning disk' technology," Snavely said.

SDSC intends to use the HPC system - called Dash - to develop new cures for diseases and to understand the development of Earth.

Solid-state drives, or SSDs, store data on flash memory chips. Unlike hard drives, which store data on magnetic platters, SSDs have no moving parts, making them rugged and less vulnerable to failure. SSDs are also considered to be less power-hungry.

Flash memory provides faster data transfer times and better latency than hard drives, said Michael Norman, interim director of SDSC. New hardware like sensor networks and simulators are feeding lots of data to the supercomputer, and flash memory more quickly stores and analyses that data.

Calling it the first HPC system to use flash memory technology, the system has already begun trial runs, SDSC said. It has 68 Appro International GreenBlade servers with dual-socket quad-core Intel Xeon 5500 series processor nodes offering up to 5.2 teraflops of performance at peak speeds. It has 48GB of memory per nodem, which gives users access to up to 768GB of memory over 16 nodes.

The system uses Intel's SATA solid-state drives, with four special I/O nodes serving up 1TB of flash memory to any other node. The university did not immediately respond to a query about the total available storage in the supercomputer.

SSDs could be better storage technology than hard drives as scientific research is time-sensitive, said Jim Handy, director at Objective Analysis, a semiconductor research firm. The quicker read and write times of SSDs compared to hard drives contribute to providing faster results, he said.

SSDs are also slowly making their way into larger server installations that do online transaction processing, like stock market trades and credit-card transactions, he said.

Many data centres also a employ a mix of SSDs and hard drives to store data, Handy said. Data that is frequently accessed is stored on SSDs for faster processing, while hard drives are used to store data that is less frequently needed.

"Hard drives are still the most cost-effective way of hanging on to data," Handy said. But for scientific research and financial services, the results are driven by speed, which makes SSDs makes worth the investment.

In another presentation on Wednesday morning, IBM's Bob Sutor, vice president of open source and Linux, hailed the proliferation of Linux. "Linux has gotten to the point where for many people, it's almost assumed you're running Linux," he said.

The conference also featured Derek Chan, head of digital operations at Dreamworks Animation, who touted the company's use of cloud and grid computing in movies like "Monsters vs. Aliens." The company has built a compute grid with more than 9,000 cores, he said. "Monsters vs. Aliens" took more than 40 million render hours to complete, he said. Cloud computing provides quick scalability and efficiency, he said.

"For us, really, the key benefits to the computational grid and cloud environment is really distributed computing," Chan said.

He also emphasised virtualisation. "We believe virtualisation will play a significant role in providing security going forward," said Chan.

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