Skip to Content

Amazon Democratizes Supercomputing

Got a big question? Willing to spend $1,279 an hour?
December 30, 2011

It may be stretching the point a little to call it, as Wired’s Cade Metz does, the “world’s fastest nonexistent supercomputer.” Amazon’s supercomputer–it built one recently atop its Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2)–exists alright, although it is virtual. Most salient, though, is the fact that Amazon promises to bring supercomputing power to, if not the masses, then at least to anyone with a big question and a decently-sized grant.

Amazon has been building virtual supercomputers on its cloud for a while now, entering the ranks of the top 500 fastest in 2010. Recently, though, Amazon’s offering climbed to become the 42nd fastest in the world. Amazon has been a major player in cloud services since 2006.

Though Amazon’s offering pales in comparison to some of those 41 faster supercomputers–Amazon can run at 240 teraflops, handling 240 trillion calculations a second; Fujitsu’s K Computer runs at 10.51 petaflops, or 10 quadrillion per second–EC2 represents a real potential disruption in the supercomputing market. Recently, a “Top 5 Pharma” customer (Amazon won’t specify who; indeed it seems to be avoiding much public comment about the supercomputer) ran a cluster with Amazon for seven hours at a peak cost of $1,279, per Ars Technica.

That may not sound cheap on the face of it, but consider the alternative: building your own computer cluster capable of similar feats. CNET dug up some numbers: the hardware to support K Computer runs $20 million, and Fujitu foots a $10 million electricity bill each year to run the thing. By contrast, running the EC2 supercomputer 24/7 for a year would cost you $11 million.

Jason Stowe, CEO of Cycle Computing, put it this way to Wired: “It’s just absurd… If you created a 30,000-core cluster in a data center, that would cost you $5 million, $10 million, and you’d have to pick a vendor, buy all the hardware, wait for it to come, rack it, stack it, cable it, and actually get it working. You’d have to wait six months, 12 months before you go it running.” By that point, he says, your research question may have refined itself, and you may need more cores, or fewer.

There are some naysayers to the whole cloud supercomputing idea. Some say Amazon will never give you the customer service you might need for fine-tuning questions. “You need a certain level of support, help with things like loading data off out disks and tweaking the performance of the cluster to suit our needs,” one loyal customer of Penguin Computing, a competitor, tells Wired.

But the bottom line is this: if you don’t need the fastest supercomputer in the world, if you don’t need a lot of hand-holding, and if you’re on a budget, Amazon’s option may be just the thing you need. The economics of the cloud (see our interactive diagram from 2009 for a vivid illustration) are–like a supercomputer itself–overwhelmingly powerful.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

images created by Google Imagen
images created by Google Imagen

The dark secret behind those cute AI-generated animal images

Google Brain has revealed its own image-making AI, called Imagen. But don't expect to see anything that isn't wholesome.

AGI is just chatter for now concept
AGI is just chatter for now concept

The hype around DeepMind’s new AI model misses what’s actually cool about it

Some worry that the chatter about these tools is doing the whole field a disservice.

Hoan Ton-That, CEO of Clearview AI
Hoan Ton-That, CEO of Clearview AI

The walls are closing in on Clearview AI

The controversial face recognition company was just fined $10 million for scraping UK faces from the web. That might not be the end of it.

spaceman on a horse generated by DALL-E
spaceman on a horse generated by DALL-E

This horse-riding astronaut is a milestone in AI’s journey to make sense of the world

OpenAI’s latest picture-making AI is amazing—but raises questions about what we mean by intelligence.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.