Los Alamos Computer Fastest Ever

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2008-06-09 Print this article Print

A "suped-up PlayStation 3" powers IBM clusters to 1 petaflop performance - 10 times faster than its closest competitor.

Scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico have built and tested a new computer cluster called the IBM Roadrunner that is the first to achieve a petaflop of sustained performance, the U.S. Department of Energy said June 9.

"Flop" is an acronym meaning floating-point operations, or mathematical calculations, per second. One petaflop is equal to 1,000 trillion calculations per second.

Roadrunner will be used by the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration to perform calculations that improve the ability to certify that the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile is reliable without conducting underground nuclear tests, the department said in a statement.

The United States ceased underground nuclear testing following a worldwide nuclear test ban treaty in 1963. The Roadrunner can provide a multi-scale simulation of the performance of a nuclear weapon, Tom D'Agostina of the Department of Energy told a teleconference audience of reporters.

The new supercomputer also will be used for financial, health science and biofuel research projects, D'Agostina said. U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman told the Associated Press that the Roadrunner also will be used to help solve global energy problems and will "open new windows of knowledge" in basic research.

From Game System to Super Computer

"We kiddingly refer to this as a 'suped-up PlayStation 3,' " D'Agostina said. "That's because it's a hybrid computer, made of up different kinds of processors. But one of the key components is the Cell chip, which was originally designed for high-performance video game use."

"The Roadrunner was able to sustain petaflop performance during both the Linpack universal benchmark and during a real application usage on May 25 in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.," said Dave Turek, vice-president of supercomputing at IBM, which supplied the cluster software and hardware for the project. "No other computer has ever done that."

The Roadrunner's performance worked out to more than 10 times the speed of the next-fastest computer (the IBM BlueGene at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California). Plus, it recorded this performance using only about half the power of the next-fastest machine, Turek said.

"Roadrunner will not only play a key role in maintaining the U.S. nuclear deterrent, it will also contribute to solving our global energy challenges, and open new windows of knowledge in the basic scientific research fields," the department said in a statement.

"To put this into perspective, if each of the 6 billion people on earth had a hand calculator and worked together on a calculation 24 hours per day, 365 days a year, it would take 46 years to do what Roadrunner would do in one day," the department said.

The Roadrunner's multicore Cell chips could eventually revolutionize the IT industry with their high clock speeds. The Cell, in R&D since 2001, was developed by a consortium of IBM, Sony and Toshiba.

The new chip integrates 234 million transistors and is fabricated with 65-nanometer SOI technology. The Cell's multi-core architecture and ultra high-speed communications capabilities enable a vastly improved real-time performance -- often 10 times the speed of the newest PC processors, as was demonstrated in the Los Alamos project.

The Cell makes up for its simpler Power core by including eight "synergistic processing units" that can work on different tasks in parallel. These multiple cores help the processor run at high clock rates.

The computer will soon take its place among the fastest computers in the world -- most likely at No. 1 -- in the world's Top 500 Supercomputer listing.

Chris Preimesberger Chris Preimesberger was named Editor-in-Chief of Features & Analysis at eWEEK in November 2011. Previously he served eWEEK as Senior Writer, covering a range of IT sectors that include data center systems, cloud computing, storage, virtualization, green IT, e-discovery and IT governance. His blog, Storage Station, is considered a go-to information source. Chris won a national Folio Award for magazine writing in November 2011 for a cover story on Salesforce.com and CEO-founder Marc Benioff, and he has served as a judge for the SIIA Codie Awards since 2005. In previous IT journalism, Chris was a founding editor of both IT Manager's Journal and DevX.com and was managing editor of Software Development magazine. His diverse resume also includes: sportswriter for the Los Angeles Daily News, covering NCAA and NBA basketball, television critic for the Palo Alto Times Tribune, and Sports Information Director at Stanford University. He has served as a correspondent for The Associated Press, covering Stanford and NCAA tournament basketball, since 1983. He has covered a number of major events, including the 1984 Democratic National Convention, a Presidential press conference at the White House in 1993, the Emmy Awards (three times), two Rose Bowls, the Fiesta Bowl, several NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments, a Formula One Grand Prix auto race, a heavyweight boxing championship bout (Ali vs. Spinks, 1978), and the 1985 Super Bowl. A 1975 graduate of Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., Chris has won more than a dozen regional and national awards for his work. He and his wife, Rebecca, have four children and reside in Redwood City, Calif.Follow on Twitter: editingwhiz

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