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The Spanish supercomputer that became the fourth fastest in the world

If all goes well, MareNostrum V will start working in the second half of 2022. It is the fifth supercomputer with this name managed by the Barcelona Supercomputing Center – Centro Nacional de Supercomputación (BSC-CNS). A story that dates back to 2004, when the first steps were taken to build a supercomputer that would be a benchmark in Spain, Europe and the world.

The first named MareNostrum was built at the IBM Technical Center in Madrid and was later transferred to Barcelona, ​​in luxury facilities, the Torre Girona chapel, which has earned it the occasional award . Almost two decades later, the BSC-CNS directly employs 765 professionals, has facilitated the creation of six associated companies and its successive versions of MareNostrum appear in the TOP500, the reference list of fastest supercomputers of the world. The last thing we know is that last October, the BSC-CNS opened a new headquarters. About 12,000 square meters that will house offices, laboratories and what will be known as MareNostrum V, the flagship supercomputer of this supercomputing center.

Created in 2005, the Barcelona Supercomputing Center – National Supercomputing Center has been the protagonist and has been present in the race to achieve the best supercomputer. A race led by China and the United States. Just look at the TOP500 list, which is updated twice a year. In the first places there is always a supercomputer from those countries. And sometimes a Japanese or European sneaks in. Interestingly, in the November 2004 list, fourth place was occupied by a European machine based in Barcelona. The first Mare Nostrum. A project that got off to a good start and is still struggling to gain a foothold in such a competitive sector.

New headquarters for BSC-CNS, BSC-Repsol Building. Source: BSC-CNS

What is a supercomputer for?

Before traveling to 2004, it's time to see what a supercomputer is for . They are expensive, take up a lot of space, become obsolete in a short time and consume a lot of energy. To start them up, the collaboration and investment of private companies and public administrations together with universities, research centers and scientists from different disciplines and fields of knowledge are needed. How important are supercomputers?

A look at the latest research sponsored by the BSC-CNS gives us an idea of ​​why we need supercomputers. Or rather the scientists. Supercomputing allows perform complex calculations at much faster speeds than with a regular computer. Hence, those responsible for MareNostrum receive requests from Spanish and European companies, universities and research centers to speed up their research. Requests that end up on a list and that succeed one another practically without interruption. Supercomputers never sleep. And no matter how powerful your iPhone is, a supercomputer will be more so.

Thanks to a supercomputer, it is possible to create simulations, calculate probabilities and obtain answers to major scientific questions related to climate change, our DNA, artificial intelligence, new energy sources or anticipating climatic phenomena such as hurricanes or volcanic eruptions. All this thanks to the fact that a supercomputer can handle and process an enormous amount of data and make sense of it at a speed that the human being would take several lifetimes to achieve.

Top view of the first MareNostrum at its facilities in Barcelona. Source: BSC-CNS

The first MareNostrum starts up

MareNostrum 1 was inaugurated on April 12, 2005 in Barcelona. As I mentioned above, it is installed in the Torre Girona chapel, next to the rectorate of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya. In turn, inside this building there is a glass dome that protects the supercomputer and makes it easier to maintain a suitable climate. A practically unique building that has been one of the insignia or characteristics of this supercomputer. To make this 150-square-meter, 45-ton machine possible, the then Ministry of Education and Science, the Generalitat de Catalunya and the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya had to join forces. And in its manufacture, with a budget of 70 million euros, IBM participated exclusively.

The most visible face of the project? Mateo Valero, then professor of Computer Architecture, professor at the UPC and who, from then until today, has been director of the BSC-CNS center that houses and manages this supercomputer. Precisely, with the start-up of the MareNostrum supercomputer, the National Supercomputing Center was also born, which will ensure its proper functioning and its constant renewal.

As reported in the press at the time, MareNostrum gave its first cases in three research areas: earth sciences, life sciences and computing. This translates into projects related to the environment, aeronautics, meteorology, energy, nanotechnology, chemistry and computational physics.

The more than 4,500 processors

Before opening MareNostrum 1 in Barcelona, ​​IBM had to build it. This phase of the project took place over two months at the IBM Technical Center, in San Fernando de Henares, Madrid. There the supercomputer was built and the performance tests were carried out. In total, 150 square meters and 45 tons of weight. A large machine protected by a cube-shaped glass case. This would make it easier to control aspects such as humidity or temperature.

Being responsible for the IBM construction, the processors of this supercomputer were PowerPC 970 FX single-core 2.2 GHz. In total, 4,812 processors. These were installed on 2,406 IBM JS20 servers (two processors per server), placed inside 163 cabinets called BladeCenters. In turn, the servers were connected by Myrinet network technology and fiber optic cables.

More data from the MareNostrum 1 technical sheet. It had 9.6 TB of main memory and 236 TB of storage. To make this possible, 20 storage servers organized in 7 racks were installed. In total, 560 discs of 512 GB capacity each. As file system, GPFS (Global Parallel File System) was used. And to manage all this software, SuSe Linux, the then popular German distribution, was used.

As for its electrical consumption, according to the press of the time: the energy needed to function is 600 KW, which is equivalent to 6,000 100-watt light bulbs. Of course, this first version of MareNostrum did not need an additional cooling system.

Torre Girona Chapel. Exterior of the building that houses the MareNostrum supercomputer. Source: BSC-CNS

The fourth fastest of 2004

Once MareNostrum was built in the IBM facilities, the pertinent tests were carried out to verify its performance. This test, called Linpack, resulted in a peak processing capacity of 31,363 Teraflops. And a sustained speed of 20,530 Teraflops. With these results, this great supercomputer headed the list as the fastest in Spain, the fastest in Europe and the fourth fastest in the world.

Hence, in the TOP500 list of November 2004, in the TOP5 there were three American supercomputers, one Japanese and the MareNostrum in fourth place. A milestone in European and Spanish supercomputing. And that has not been repeated since then. The successive MareNostrum have appeared in the TOP100, but well below that initial position.

In the successive updates of the TOP500 of supercomputers, the increasingly ambitious proposals of China and the United States will appear along with other less represented countries such as Japan, Germany or Switzerland. In the case at hand, in a single year, from November 2004 to November 2005, MareNostrum dropped from position 4 to position 8. Such is the competitiveness in this sector.

However, the expansion of this supercomputer in 2006 will make it appear in a better position in the TOP500 of November 2006. Specifically, in fifth place, thanks to its record of 62.6 Teraflops with a peak of 94.2 Teraflops . For this, the original processors were replaced by 5,120 dual-core processors in JS21 servers. Memory was also expanded to 20 Terabytes and 390 Terabytes of storage. The MareNostrum will have given way to its successor, the MareNostrum 2.

We began this article with the MareNostrum V, still pending manufacturing along with seven other European supercomputers. Currently, the MareNostrum 4 is the main representative of supercomputing in Spain, and a great pillar at European level. In a Europe that wants to stop technologically depending on China and the United States. But that is another story.