Increasingly, supercomputers are really just large systems that rely on mainstream computing parts, reports the New York Times. A decade-long trend reached its inevitable conclusion this week when a supercomputer based on chips from Advanced Micro Devices became the fastest machine on the planet. The computer, called Jaguar, sits at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and can throw hundreds of thousands of processing engines at computing problems. The machine shows just how far chips based on similar architectures to those found in everyday PCs have come. The supercomputing world was long dominated by systems that required specialized chips, memory systems, and networking technology. But about 10 years ago, researchers realized they could link thousands of cheaper machines running on mainstream chips and achieve pretty solid performance. Today, these mainstream systems dominate the list of the top 500 supercomputers that is released twice a year. The top three machines and four of the top 10 run on AMD’s Opteron chip, while three of the top 10 rely on IBM’s specialized BlueGene systems, and three other systems use Intel’s mainstream Xeon chips. So, seven of the top 10 run on off-the-shelf gear. The rise of systems based on mainstream x86 and graphics chips has some political consequences, however. Countries like China that lack homegrown supercomputing technology now can buy their way into the realm of the computing elite…

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