IBM Aims for a Petaflop

IBM's Roadrunner supercomputer is a mix of new and commodity technologies.

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y.-In the Warner Bros. cartoons, the Road Runner dashed across a vast desert landscape continually outmaneuvering its archrival, Wile E. Coyote, thanks to incredible speed and quick thinking.

IBM's Roadrunner supercomputer will also find a home in a desert landscape-Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico-and will also rely on speed and quick thinking, or in this case calculations, to keep ahead of its competition. The massive system is poised to become one of the world's fastest high-performance computers, according to IBM officials.

At IBM's facility here in upstate New York, engineers are putting the final touches on Roadrunner before it's shipped to the Department of Energy's facility in Los Alamos in August. Donald Grice, IBM's chief engineer for the Roadrunner project, said the $100 million machine is likely to offer a sustained performance of 1 petaflop-1 quadrillion calculations per second-a goal that several other HPC makers such as Cray, Sun Microsystems and SGI are working toward.

In the past two weeks, SGI and Intel have announced plans to create a supercomputer at NASA that will break the petaflop mark. Meanwhile, Sun is working toward its own system that will reach the petaflop plateau.

Click here to read about Sun Microsystems' supercomputer, "Ranger," installed at the Texas Advanced Computing Center.

What looks to make Roadrunner different from other supercomputers-including IBM's own Blue Gene systems, which hold several spots in the upper echelon of the Top 500 supercomputer list-is its use of the Cell processors that IBM co-developed with Sony and Toshiba for use in game consoles like PlayStation.

What IBM has developed is a heterogeneous system that utilizes standard x86 Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices as well as Cell chips for use as accelerators within the Roadrunner system.

This type of internal design should help developers create the scientific applications that will be used within the Roadrunner system. Developers will be able to write applications that take advantage of the Cell processors as accelerators for the heavy computational parts of the application, while the x86 processors can handle the standard computing.

"You get to the hard part and you accelerate it," Grice told eWEEK. "It takes a little work, but you do it once and you use it over and over again. They do a little bit of work to put routines down there and it does all the work. Conceptually, it's not very different from branching down into assembly language, so you have to find your hard part; you move that down to the Cell. Then you code the application for the Cell, just like you would for assembly language ... and then you move on."

This supercomputer design helps overcome some of the difficulties associated with the trend of emphasizing increases in processors' density and number of cores rather than clock frequency. It also allows IBM to build a machine that uses less electricity, while increasing its ability to scale to a petaflop and beyond.