The triumph of Linux as a supercomputer OS

Operating systems on supercomputers used to be custom-made affairs, but this has changed. These days, Linux has become a popular choice for supercomputers. But how popular? You may be surprised. maintains a list of the fastest supercomputers in the world. A new list was published yesterday (it happens twice a year), so we took the opportunity to go through the list and find out what OS the top 20 supercomputers are using.

It took some work, but the results are interesting.

Linux usage among the top supercomputers

When we list the OS for each of the top 20 supercomputers, the result for Linux is very impressive:

19 of the top 20 supercomputers in the world are running some form of Linux.

That’s 95%! And if you just look at the top 10, ALL of them use Linux. The ratio may change a bit if you look at the complete list (it has 500 entries) but we simply didn’t have time to go through the full list and find out the OS for each computer. However, there can be little doubt that Linux is a dominant OS among the top supercomputers, and most likely across the field. (Update: Linux has an 88.6% share of the top 500 supercomputers.)

Operating system used by the top 20 supercomputers
Rank Computer Vendor Operating System
1 Roadrunner IBM Linux
2 Jaguar (Cray XT5) Cray Linux (CNL)
4 Pleiades SGI Linux (SLES 10 + SGI ProPack 5)
5 BlueGene/L IBM Linux (CNK/SLES 9)
6 Kraken XT5 Cray Linux (CNL)
7 BlueGene/P IBM Linux (CNK/SLES 9)
8 Ranger Sun Linux
9 Dawn IBM Linux (CNK/SLES 9)
10 JUROPA Bull SA Linux (SLES 11)
11 Franklin Cray Linux (CNL)
12 Jaguar (Cray XT4) Cray Linux (CNL)
13 Red Storm Cray Linux (UNICOS/SUSE Linux)
14 Shaheen IBM Linux (CNK/SLES 9)
15 Magic Cube Dawning Windows (Windows HPC 2008)
16 GPC IBM Linux
17 Encanto SGI Linux (SLES 10 + SGI ProPack 5)
18 EKA HP Linux
19 Juno Appro International Linux (Redhat)
20 Jade SGI Linux (SLES 10 + SGI ProPack 5)

The complete June 2009 list (but without OS information) can be found on the site.

Looking at this list, it becomes clear that prominent supercomputer vendors such as Cray, IBM and SGI have wholeheartedly embraced Linux.

Judging from the results for the top 20, it looks like SUSE Linux (SLES) is a very popular option, although what version of Linux a supercomputer is using isn’t always specified.

In a few cases Linux coexists with a lightweight kernel running on the compute nodes (the part of the supercomputer that performs the actual calculations), but often even these lightweight kernels are based on Linux. Cray, for example, has a modified version of Linux they call CNL (Compute Node Linux).

Why Linux?

IBM used to focus on its own mainframe UNIX system, AIX, but has been a strong proponent for Linux for years now. When IBM started its Blue Gene series of supercomputers back in 2002 it chose Linux as its operating system.

We think the following quote from Bill Pulleyblank of IBM Research (from this 2002 ZDNet article) nicely sums up why IBM and many other vendors have chosen Linux:

We chose Linux because it’s open and because we believed it could be extended to run a computer the size of Blue Gene. We saw considerable advantage in using an operating system supported by the open-source community, so that we can get their input and feedback.

In short, it looks like Linux has conquered the supercomputer market almost completely.

What are your thoughts on this, and what does this mean for Linux?

Tux image from Wikimedia Commons (original Tux by Larry Ewing).

Further reading: If you’re into supercomputers, check out ten of the coolest and most powerful supercomputers of all time.


  1. Don’t be fooled by that lone Windows system in the Top 20. Microsoft has pulled marketing stunts before where they convinced people to claim that they were running Windows when they actually ran Linux most of the time. I experienced this at PathScale, where one of our customers surprised us by issuing a press release saying that their supercomputer ran Windows. The interconnect hardware we sold them didn’t have any Windows drivers! Anyway, for this Dawning system, here is a press release saying it runs both Linux and Windows:

  2. @Mike Crilley: that is so not true! Google for Ubuntu, you’ll find version for netbooks, too, and it works as a charm! Even “normal” Ubuntu is great for it!

    P.S. For all of those who dont like Ubuntu’s brown-orange theme: just change values between red and blue 😉

  3. @Mike Crilley. I’ve just installed Linux Mint (an Ubuntu deriviative) on a friends Acer netbook. It runs like a dream and everything works just fine. We’ve even skyped with it, over a broadband dongle!

    The only reason XP is still the majority OS on the netbooks is that a lot of users want their multimedia there right from the off – and the major linux distro’s don’t go out of their way to make that easy to sort out. Mint’s multimedia works as soon as it’s installed!

  4. @Mike Crilley: ummm… the same Linux that powers the OLPC project? The same Linux that powers the eeePC? Why is netbook the other end of the scale anyway? Surely embedded computers would be the other end of the scale, and there again, Linux is dominant. It’s hard to follow your take on it!

  5. @Mike Crilley, The only market that I know of where some form of Linux is not dominant is the PC/Laptop, and the reason (my opinion) is because Windows still works for most people for most things. yes, windows costs cash and linux doesn’t, but the cost of windows is factored into the price of the PC when you buy it, so you don’t think about it. In that way, Windows has become synonymous with computers to the average consumer. The mention of Linux brings back memories of a shell, and most consumers are terrified of it, even if that isn’t the actual case. whether it is or not is irrelevant, what matters is that they think it is.

    I read somewhere once that computer literacy is just like regular literacy; first you start with pictures/GUIs (Icons, the Mouse, Windows) then as you learn more and more you take the step up to words (command line), leaving the picture books in the dust.

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