Amazon’s Cloud: A Supercomputer Anyone Can Rent

Amazon has one of the world’s fastest supercomputers. There’s something unusual about it, though — it’s not real. That is, it’s not real in the way other supercomputers are, in a huge room filled with glowing, humming racks of processors and storage. It’s in the cloud.

Cloud computing gets a lot of attention, and deservedly so. Harnessing the processing power of multiple machines in different locations to attack a single, complex task that would usually be completed by a machine in a single location is an impressive engineering feat. But as promising as the idea is, it’s not known for high performance and reliability.

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At least not until now. Amazon‘s cloud-computing service is now putting other supercomputers to shame. The service is based on the company’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), the backbone of Amazon Web Services, which many digital businesses, including Foursquare and Reddit, use instead of building and maintaining their own services. EC2 also helps the Kindle Fire’s silk browser run quickly.

Unlike your typical supercomputer, the EC2 is spread out over multiple locations worldwide. It was designed to give virtual computing power to several clients at once, not attack large, singular tasks. Amazon first rolled out EC2 in August 2006, but it was made to be massively scalable, and it started ranking among the top 500 supercomputers in the world in 2010, in the 233rd spot. After dropping down to place 451st in June this year, it shot up to the number 42 spot in November.

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The high ranking is even more incredible when you consider the EC2 has to run the virtual servers of thousands of businesses while also acting as a supercomputer. Clearly, Amazon has put some effort behind its supercomputing service to improve performance

Just how fast is EC2? It can rocket through computations at 240 teraflops, or 240 trillion calculations per second. By comparison, the fastest supercomputer in the world, Fujitsu’s K Computer, runs at 10 petaflops — about 40 times as fast.

It might not beat the K Computer, but EC2 is plenty fast, and even better, you can rent it on the cheap. The company said in the fall that a client it would only describe as a “Top 5 Pharma” used the service for seven hours at a peak cost of $1,279 per hour. That’s peanuts compared to building your own supercomputer — and probably a cheaper option even if you had to run it 24/7 for a year. Other companies, such as T-Platforms, lease supercomputing time, of course, though it’s doubtful customers would get a machine as fast (there are only 41 in the world, after all).

Although Amazon has proved the viability of the concept, cloud supercomputing may not replace those room-filling clusters completely. Some have pointed out that computing performance isn’t the same as how fast the machine (virtual or otherwise) communicates the data. EC2 isn’t equipped with the machine interfaces in many standalone systems, so some applications may not be suitable to run on it.

Regardless, cloud computing — and its brainier brother, cloud supercomputing — appear here to stay. Might Amazon see competitors rise in the coming years? Facebook, with its colossal social network running on millions of computers worldwide, may have more cloud services in the making. 2012 could be the year the field of supercomputing gets permanently overcast.

[via Technology Review]

This story originally published on Mashable here.

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