IBM breaks the petaflop barrier

Performing one quadrillion calculations per second, the Roadrunner supercomputer has parallels with the human brain, says a project team member
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

Computing giant IBM has built a supercomputer that can operate at one petaflop — 1,000 trillion floating point operations per second — twice as fast as the world's previous fastest computer, Blue Gene.

Named 'Roadrunner', the supercomputer was built for the US Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration, and will primarily be used for US nuclear weapons simulations. The computer will also be used for research into astronomy, energy, human genome science and climate change, IBM said in a statement.

The computer uses a mixture of technology designed for gaming and business. Cell broadband engines, used in the Play Station 3 (PS3), work in conjunction with AMD x86 processors.

Roadrunner runs on 6,948 dual-core AMD Opteron chips on IBM Model LS21 blade servers, and 12,960 Cell engines on IBM Model QS22 blade servers. With 80 terabytes of memory, the Roadrunner system and is housed in 288 IBM BladeCentre racks occupying 6,000 square feet. It has 10,000 connections, both infiniband and gigabit Ethernet, with 57 miles of fibre-optic cable.

Bijan Divari, IBM vice president for next-generation computer systems technology, said on Thursday that the way the computer was constructed was similar to a human brain.

"The brain has significant aggregate computing capabilities, like Roadrunner," said Divari. "By connecting tens of thousands of computing nodes, they can work together simultaneously in a parallel fashion, just in the way that the brain does. Neurons are very slow, but they work in parallel to create significant computing capability. Roadrunner is built on the same concept."

Roadrunner's processing speed of one quadrillion calculations per second enables real-time simulations of events, said Divari. The computer will primarily be used to simulate the effects of nuclear explosions, while the combination of gaming and enterprise technology allows realistic simulations.

"PS3s calculate the results of events in real time, for example, car collisions create dents," said Divari. "We connected this to a traditional transactional and database project."

Divari predicted that computers 10 times as powerful as Roadrunner would be in existence in 10 years' time, enabling simulations of environments in real time.

"We get really excited about that," said Divari. "Simulations in real time can connect businesses, and will change the way we do business. You can render the world accurately, and have a simulation of London, New York, Tokyo. You can connect that to people, and combine with business processes. Imagine a realistic internet, where you can participate in a ball game or car race, and it's almost indistinguishable from the real world."

IBM Roadrunner

Roadrunner, the world’s fastest supercomputer, can perform one thousand trillion calculations per second

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