Physical Architecture

The physical architecture of Titan is just as interesting as the high level core and transistor counts. I mentioned earlier that Titan is built from 200 cabinets. Inside each cabinets are Cray XK7 boards, each of which has four AMD G34 sockets and four PCIe slots. These aren't standard desktop PCIe slots, but rather much smaller SXM slots. The K20s NVIDIA sells to Cray come on little SXM cards without frivolous features like display outputs. The SXM form factor is similar to the MXM form factor used in some notebooks.

There's no way around it. ORNL techs had to install 18,688 CPUs and GPUs over the past few weeks in order to get Titan up and running. Around 10 of the formerly-Jaguar cabinets had these new XK boards but were using Fermi GPUs. I got to witness one of the older boards get upgraded to K20. The process isn't all that different from what you'd see in a desktop: remove screws, remove old card, install new card, replace screws. The form factor and scale of installation are obviously very different, but the basic premise remains.

As with all computer components, there's no guarantee that every single chip and card is going to work. When you're dealing with over 18,000 computers as a part of a single entity, there are bound to be failures. All of the compute nodes go through testing, and faulty hardware swapped out, before the upgrade is technically complete.

OS & Software

Titan runs the Cray Linux Environment, which is based on SUSE 11. The OS has to be hardened and modified for operation on such a large scale. In order to prevent serialization caused by interrupts, Cray takes some of the cores and uses them to run all of the OS tasks so that applications running elsewhere aren't interrupted by the OS.

Jobs are batch scheduled on Titan using Moab and Torque.


If you're curious about why Titan uses Opterons, the explanation is actually pretty simple. Titan is a large installation of Cray XK7 cabinets, so CPU support is actually defined by Cray. Back in 2005 when Jaguar made its debut, AMD's Opterons were superior to the Intel Xeon alternative. The evolution of Cray's XT/XK lines simply stemmed from that point, with Opteron being the supported CPU of choice.

The GPU decision was just as simple. NVIDIA has been focusing on non-gaming compute applications for its GPUs for years now. The decision to partner with NVIDIA on the Titan project was made around 3 years ago. At the time, AMD didn't have a competitive GPU compute roadmap. If you remember back to our first Fermi architecture article from back in 2009, I wrote the following:

"By adding support for ECC, enabling C++ and easier Visual Studio integration, NVIDIA believes that Fermi will open its Tesla business up to a group of clients that would previously not so much as speak to NVIDIA. ECC is the killer feature there."

At the time I didn't know it, but ORNL was one of those clients. With almost 19,000 GPUs, errors are bound to happen. Having ECC support was a must have for GPU enabled Jaguar and Titan compute nodes. The ORNL folks tell me that CUDA was also a big selling point for NVIDIA.

Finally, some of the new features specific to K20/GK110 (e.g. Hyper Q and GPU Direct) made Kepler the right point to go all-in with GPU compute.

Power Delivery & Cooling

Titan's cabinets require 480V input to reduce overall cable thickness compared to standard 208V cabling. Total power consumption for Titan should be around 9 megawatts under full load and around 7 megawatts during typical use. The building that Titan is housed in has over 25 megawatts of power delivered to it.

In the event of a power failure there's no cost effective way to keep the compute portion of Titan up and running (remember, 9 megawatts), but you still want IO and networking operational. Flywheel based UPSes kick in, in the event of a power interruption. They can power Titan's network and IO for long enough to give diesel generators time to come on line.

The cabinets themselves are air cooled, however the air itself is chilled using liquid cooling before entering the cabinet. ORNL has over 6600 tons of cooling capacity just to keep the recirculated air going into these cabinets cool.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory Applying for Time on Titan & Supercomputing Applications


View All Comments

  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Wednesday, October 31, 2012 - link

    It was an awesome trip, seriously one of the best. Talking to Dr. Messer was one of the highlights for sure, that guy is insanely smart and very passionate about his work.

    Old hardware is traded in when you order the next round of upgrades :)

    Take care,
  • Jaybus - Tuesday, February 19, 2013 - link

    Yes, great work! I suggest seeing about a trip to IBM Research or HRL Labs to investigate the DARPA SynAPSE project. That could be another really interesting trip and article. Reply
  • Mumrik - Wednesday, October 31, 2012 - link

    I guess we're finally beyond the bad "But will it run Crysis?" jokes.

    This was pretty amazing to watch. The challenges of putting something together at that scale are fascinating and intimidating.
  • dishayu - Wednesday, October 31, 2012 - link

    I am sad to never even have visited a datacenter. Would love to take a tour like this some day.

    And also, gaming finally started paying off in real world as well, that's pretty sweet as well. :D
  • poohbear - Wednesday, October 31, 2012 - link

    sure but can it play crysis?? Reply
  • GTRagnarok - Wednesday, October 31, 2012 - link

    Wouldn't it be so much more power efficient if they were able to use Intel's chips? Maybe they will redesign the whole thing in the future. Reply
  • A5 - Wednesday, October 31, 2012 - link

    It would, but you'd have to take that up with Cray. Reply
  • Reikon - Wednesday, October 31, 2012 - link

    Did anyone else notice on the second picture of the Titan Installation gallery that the guy is using a ridiculous amount of thermal paste for each CPU? Reply
  • IanCutress - Wednesday, October 31, 2012 - link

    In this environment, where stability is key, he was probably taught that having a bit more is safer than having a bit less. No doubt the data center was designed around airflow software to ensure that heating issues do not arise based on an 'average' application of thermal material. Reply
  • maximumGPU - Wednesday, October 31, 2012 - link

    here's to us gamers for advancing science and making the world a better place.
    You're welcome!

    Awesome article.

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