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Big Blue to Build World’s Fastest Supercomputer

IBM is building a supercomputer capable of petaflop performance — 1,000 trillion, or a quadrillion, calculations per second — for the U.S. Department of Energy using a combination of more than 30,000 Cell Broadband Engine (Cell BE) and AMD Opteron processors.

The new supercomputer, dubbed “Roadrunner,” will be built for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) at the DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory and represents the first use of the Cell processors — the chips at the core of the next-generation Sony Playstation 3 gaming console — in a supercomputer.

The system, which will take up approximately three basketball courts of space, will run on the Linux operating system and will be used for ultra high-performance computing (HPC) applications and problem-solving, including nuclear weapons simulation and life sciences research, according to IBM.

Atop the Petaflop

Calling the system a “hybrid supercomputer” because of its inclusion of both Cell processors — co-developed by IBM, Sony, and Toshiba — and AMD Opteron processors, IBM said Roadrunner will be capable of a peak performance of as many as 1.6 thousand trillion calculations per second, or 1.6 petaflops.

The system, to be constructed starting this year and finished in 2008, will rely on sophisticated software to direct more than 16,000 Cell BE processors and 16,000 Opterons in IBM’s System x3755 servers and BladeCenter H systems running on Linux, IBM said.

Roadrunner’s Opterons will handle typical computing functions, such as communication and file input/output (I/O), while the Cell BE processors will take on traditional supercomputer processes, which are more complex and repetitive, according to Big Blue.

“This installation with Los Alamos and IBM demonstrates the compelling benefits of industry leaders innovating around an open platform; in this case, IBM and AMD collaborating in the use of AMD Opteron and the Cell BE processor to build powerful systems for highly specific Los Alamos Labs workloads,” said AMD Commercial Segment Senior Vice President Marty Seyer.

Innovative Integration

Roadrunner represents a logical use of the Cell processor, which was designed to power more realistic game console graphics — such as water or shadows — and is an impressive assembly of processor technology, Semico Chief of Technology Tony Massimini told TechNewsWorld.

The coupling of Cell and Opteron processors makes sense since IBM and AMD have been jointly developing manufacturing technology known as silicon on insulator, or SOI, he noted.

“This is really pulling together two very different processors made with the same manufacturing,” he said.

Calling the planned supercomputer “the top of the line,” Massimini said enterprise IT organizations should eventually benefit from the technology as it matures and works its way into broader markets. He added that while the number of processors and potential performance of Roadrunner are significant, what is more remarkable is that the supercomputer is being built with off-the-shelf components.

Super Specific

Just as with all other aspects of computing and IT, supercomputers must keep advancing to improve and speed the technology, and Roadrunner is an example of such advancement, Gartner Research Vice President Martin Reynolds told TechNewsWorld.

The new supercomputer is an ideal platform for the performance benefits of Cell processing, despite the technology’s lack of flexibility and programming difficulty, Reynolds explained.

More mainstream use of such supercomputing power is still a long way off, he noted, particularly since the applications of such a supercomputer are very highly specialized.

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