June 9, 2008

Scientists Develop World’s Fastest Supercomputer

The Department of Energy (DOE) and IBM announced Monday that scientists at the Los Alamos government weapons lab have developed the world's fastest supercomputer, an IBM machine capable of 1,000 trillion operations per second. Codenamed Roadrunner, the supercomputer was built with components designed for Sony's PlayStation 3 (PS3).

The scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and IBM worked for six years to achieve the world record computer speed, which is double IBM's Blue Gene/L supercomputer, the current world's fastest machine. Blue Gene/L resides at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and is used in the DOE's Stockpile Stewardship Program that manages the country's nuclear weapons.

Roadrunner will be installed at a US government laboratory later this year where it will be used to assist in solving global energy problems and "open new windows of knowledge" in basic research, according to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. It will also be used in astronomy, genomics and climate change research.

"We are getting closer to simulating the real world," said Bijan Davari, vice president of IBM's next generation computing systems, in an interview with BBC News.

"It would be of particular use for calculating risk in financial markets," he said.

"The latency of the calculations is so small that for all practical purposes it is real time."

Roadrunner will use fewer than 20,000 chips. By comparison, IBM's Blue Gene/L, recently upgraded to a speed of 478.2 teraflops, uses 212,992 processors. A teraflop is equivalent to a trillion calculations per second.

Roadrunner's improvements are based on it's "hybrid" design, which uses both conventional processors and PS3's powerful "cell" chip, an eight-core chip designed by IBM, Sony and Toshiba that runs at speeds greater than 4 GHz. The chip was modified for Roadrunner in order to accommodate a greater bandwidth of data and carry out specialized calculations. Roadrunner has more than 12,000 of these "accelerator" processors, in addition to almost 7,000 standard processors used for general computation while the cells manage vast amounts of unstructured data.

"For these kinds of simulations of very complex natural phenomena the cell chip is extremely powerful," Dr Davari said.

"It is a lot more effective than combing many, many, many more smaller, general purpose computational engines."

"The machine was the first to pass through the petaflop barrier," said Dr Davari.

"The exciting part for me as a technical person is that we can now see the recipe for high performance computing for the next 10 to 15 years," he said.

Roadrunner will now be moved to New Mexico, where it will be housed in 288 refrigerator-sized cases networked by over 57 miles of fiber optic cable.

Other supercomputers might soon be challenging Roadrunner for status as the world's fastest computer. Cray and Sun supercomputers have announced plans for petaflop machines in the near future. And IBM is currently developing another petaflop machine based on its Blue Gene/P technology, which shares much of the same hardware and software as Blue Gene/L. Once completed, Blue Gene/P will be the world's fastest commercial supercomputer, and will be installed at the DOE's Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

"Blue Gene/P continues the path of Blue/Gene L," said Dr Davari.

Currently, the world's top five supercomputers are:

  • Blue Gene/L - 478.2 teraflops; 212, 992 processors, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California.
  • Blue Gene/P - 167.3 teraflops; 65536 processors, Forschungszentrum Juelich, Germany.
  • SGI Altix ICE 8200 - 126.9 teraflops; 14336 processors, SGI/New Mexico Computing Applications Center, Wisconsin, US.
  • EKA - Cluster Platform 3000 BL460c - 117.9 teraflops; 14240 processors, Computational Research Laboratories, Pune, India.
  • Cluster Platform 3000 BL460c - 102.8 teraflops; 13728 processors, government agency, Sweden.

Source: Top 500 Supercomputers: http://www.top500.org/