Twice a year for the last 26 years, TOP500 publishes a list of the 500 most powerful commercial supercomputers. This most recent list includes a historical first: satellite imagery and data company Descartes Labs rated on the list at #136 — making it the only one of its ilk to run completely on the cloud.
Descartes Labs’ computer uses Amazon Web Services, the retailer’s market-leading cloud platform. This system can model how people and companies use natural resources at a global scale, simulate weather, and measure earthquakes.
Just as impressively, to build this system, Descartes Labs spent a paltry $5000 on AWS’s services — far less than it would take to build most of the rest of the supercomputers on the TOP500 list, which could cost tens of millions of dollars and take months of work just to get up and running.
Mike Warren, CTO and cofounder of Descartes Labs, says that there’s always going to be a need for specialized supercomputing systems, especially at places like research labs. But Descartes’ approach shows that there’s a way to get access to this kind of computing horsepower, without having to spend millions.
“Our performance on the list as a demonstration of the capability of the cloud, but it’s definitely not a claim that this is the right way for everyone to solve their specific problem,” Warren told Business Insider. “It’s certainly going to be an option that’s valuable for some people.”
Notably, Amazon itself has made the TOP500 list before. However, to achieve that feat, it used the retailer’s own, internal platforms — not the version of Amazon Web Services that’s available to the paying public.
Descartes, for comparison, achieved this feat on the real, actual AWS platform, facing the same limitations and costs as any other customer of the platform.
This all happens against the backdrop of the burgeoning market for high-performance computing, or HPC. Chirag Dekate, senior director and analyst at Gartner, says that the market for HPC in the cloud is poised to explode, as almost every company would prefer to avoid the high costs of the more traditional approach.
“Many companies are increasingly looking at cloud-based capabilities,” Dekate told Business Insider. “They’re trying to figure out how to make HPC work in the cloud. While the current market for HPC is small, over time, they are looking forward to creating a cloud based strategy.”
‘The cloud has grown up’
Warren spent most of his career in building supercomputers, as far back as the ’90s. In 1998, Warren and his team at Los Alamos National Lab built a