zBox4 – Building a SuperComputer in under 24-hours!

Now, we do like this very much. The zBox4 is the latest upgrade to the famous zBox supercomputer and is located in the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.

The fourth generation of self-made supercomputer at the ITP represents the first real design update to the original zBox1 which was built in 2002. The number of cores and amount of memory was increased substantially over zBox3 and the very aging SCI Network replaced by QDR Infiniband. From the 576 cores (Intel Core2) and 1.3 TB RAM of zBox3, they now have 3072 cores (Intel Sandy Bridge E5) and 12 TB of RAM. While zBox3 was an upgrade of the main boards, CPUs and memory without making any design changes, zBox4 involved completely redesigning the platters which now each hold 4 nodes. The special rack which houses these platters was also improved with addition of a special nozzle to improve airflow and cleaning up the way cables are routed.

Planning for zBox4 began in the Spring of 2011, but these plans were partially scrapped in the late Fall of 2011 to await the arrival the Intel Sandy Bridge E5 chip with 8 cores and 4 memory channels per chip and main boards to support it. Serious planning began again in the Spring of 2012 and construction began end of September 2012. The dismantling of zBox3 and the construction of zBox4 was performed by volunteer students, postdocs and friends of the Institute, with even a few professors lending a helping hand.

It has been estimated that the 192-node machine with 3,072 cores will deliver around 54 teraflops, which is a lot more than the 576-core zBox3 machine based on Core2 processors and with only 1.3TB of aggregate main memory.

In terms of hardware;


  • CPUs: 384 x Intel Xeon E5-2660 (8 cores @ 2.2 GHz, 95 W), 3072 cores in total
  • Main Boards: 192 Supermicro X9DRT-IBQF (2 CPUs per node) on-board QDR Infiniband
  • RAM: Hynix DDR3-1600, 4 GB/core, 64 GB/node, 12.3 TB in total
  • SSD: 192 OCZ 128 GB high performance Vertex 4 drives, 24.6 TB in Total
  • HPC Network: QLogic/Intel QDR Infiniband in 2:1 fat tree (9 leaf and 3 core switches)
  • Gbit Ethernet and seerate dedicated 100 Mbit management networks
  • Power usage (full load): 44 kW
  • Dimensions (L x W x H): 1.5m x 1.5m x 1.7m
  • Number of Cables: Power: 112 IB: 300 Ethernet: 388
  • Cost: under 750’000 CHF

System Configuration

  • OS: Scientific Linux version 6.3
  • Queue System: Slurm
  • Swap: 8 GB on node-local SSD drive
  • Temp Files: 110 GB on node-local SSD drive
  • Booting: from node-local SSD, or over Ethernet

Storage System (existing)

  • Capacity: 684 TB formatted Raid-6
  • Lustre file system with 50 OSTs
  • 342 x 1.5 TB HDD and 171 x 2.0 TB HDD
  • Physical dimensions: 48 standard rack units
  • 10 Gb Ethernet and 40 Gb (QDR) Infiniband
  • 3 Controllers using Intel E5645 2.4 GHz CPUs
Tape Robot:
  • Capacity: 800 TB, 437 tape slots
  • 4 x LTO-5 drives and 2 x LTO-3 drives
  • 54 TB high speed tape cache (108 TB raw storage)
  • 40 Gb (QDR) Infiniband connected

According to El Reg’s calculations, the whole shebang will burn around 44 kilowatts under full load, and costs under $750,000, or about $13,888 per teraflops.

The zBox4 system will link into an existing homegrown Lustre file system with 684TB of capacity that has support for 10 Gigabit Ethernet or QDR InfiniBand links into the storage and that takes up 48 racks of space with its 342 1.5TB disks and 171 2TB disks. ®

Lastly, this entire beast of a machine was built in under 24 hours!


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