IBM’s Roadrunner Supercomputer Zooms Into Petaflop Territory

IBM has designed a new US$100 million supercomputer, called “Roadrunnner,” that’s powerful enough to operate at 1 petaflop — a cool 1 thousand trillion calculations per second. That’s twice as fast as the next closest supercomputer — the IBM Blue Gene system — and nearly three times as fast as other top supercomputers in the world.

For those who aren’t sure what a thousand trillion calculations per second equates to, it’s also 1 million billion calculations per second — or 1 quadrillion calculations per second.

Petaflop in Perspective

Roadrunner’s computing power, explained IBM, is roughly equivalent to the combined computing power of 100,000 of today’s fastest laptop computers — which would create a stack of laptops 1.5 miles high.

If the entire population of Earth — about 6 billion people — used a handheld calculator at the rate of 1 second per calculation, it would take humans more than 46 years to do what Roadrunner can do in a single day, noted the company.

World’s First Hybrid Supercomputer

“What I find particularly interesting about it . . . is that it’s the first instance of a hybrid supercomputer,” said Charles King, principal analyst for Pund-IT.

“Rather than just a monolithic single chip architecture, this is a blended architecture that uses AMD Opteron and IBM processors,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“The angle that AMD was taking on this is that by creating an integrated blend of chip architectures, Roadrunner would be able to not only achieve high performance, but could also be used for a wider variety of supercomputing activities,” he added.

Roadrunner uses IBM’s Cell Broadband Engine, which was originally developed for the PlayStation 3 video game console, and works with AMD’s x86 Opteron processors, creating the hybrid architecture.

It’s built from commercially available parts — 6,948 dual-core AMD Opteron chips on IBM LS21 blade servers with 12,960 Cell engines on IBM QS22 blade servers.

It sports 80 terabytes of memory and is crammed into 288 refrigerator-sized IBM BladeCenter racks that weigh 500,000 pounds and occupy 6,000 square feet.

It boasts 10,000 Infiniband and Gigabit Ethernet connections requiring 57 miles of fiber optic cable.

And it runs open source Linux software from Red Hat.

Road Trip

“Over the last five years, there’s been this massive shift in supercomputer design. The older architectures were designed from bottom up. They were highly proprietary, and everybody had their own secret sauce to pour onto the mix,” King pointed out.

“In the last few years, things have shifted radically to clustered x86 systems instead,” he added, noting that about 90 percent of the world’s top supercomputers are made up of clustered x86 processors.

IBM built, tested and benchmarked Roadrunner at its Poughkeepsie, N.Y., plant. IBM’s Rochester, Minn., plant constructed specialized tri-blade servers that are made from one LS21 blade and two QS22 blades.

IBM engineers in Austin, Texas, led the software development, with help from researchers in IBM’s Yorktown Heights, N.Y., research lab.

This summer, IBM will load Roadrunner onto 21 tractor trailer trucks and deliver it to the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, where it will be used to ensure the safety and reliability of the United States’ nuclear weapons stockpile.

It will also be used for research into astronomy, energy, human genome science and climate change.

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