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IBM Working Towards Sugar Cube-sized Supercomputers

November 12, 2010

In the future, supercomputers will feature processors the size of a sugar cube, as well as water-based cooling systems that will make them far more energy efficient than today’s models, according to top scientists at IBM.

The technological advances were discussed by IBM’s Dr. Bruno Michel at the company’s Zurich-based laboratories, according to a Friday article by BBC News Science and Technology Reporter Jason Palmer.

“The approach will see many computer processors stacked on top of one another, cooling them with water flowing between each one,” Palmer added. “The aim is to reduce computers’ energy use, rather than just to shrink them.”

Michel told BBC News that he believed that a computer’s green credentials would soon be the primary determining factor in its cost, noting that he believed the day will come when “to run a data centre will cost more than to build it.”

To that end, Michel and his team have already assembled a prototype system, dubbed Aquasar, which features a series of water-cooled servers. According to Palmer, Aquasar “occupies a rack larger than a refrigerator,” but according to IBM, it is “almost 50% more energy-efficient than the world’s leading supercomputers.”

Palmer reports that Aquasar can complete 1.1 billion computational operations per one watt of power–surpassing the previous efficiency high of 770 million operations per watt. The challenge now is to harness the technology utilized by the refrigerator-sized supercomputer and make it available in a smaller, easier to use package.

“We currently have built this Aquasar system that’s one rack full of processors,” Michael told Palmer. “We plan that 10 to 15 years from now, we can collapse such a system in to one sugar cube–we’re going to have a supercomputer in a sugar cube.”

According to a June 2009 IBM press release, Aquasar–which was a collaboration project with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH)–could decrease a supercomputer’s carbon footprint by as much as 85-percent, saving up to 30 tons of carbon dioxide annually in comparison to systems that use current forms of cooling technology.

“Energy is arguably the number one challenge humanity will be facing in the 21st century,” Dr. Dimos Poulikakos, the lead investigator of the joint ETH-IBM project, said in a 2009 statement. “We cannot afford anymore to design computer systems based on the criterion of computational speed and performance alone”¦ The new target must be high performance and low net power consumption supercomputers and data centers. This means liquid cooling.”

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