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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 September 2006, 10:42 GMT 11:42 UK
Fastest supercomputer to be built
IBM's Blue Gene/L supercomputer
Currently, BlueGene/L is the most powerful computer in the world
Computer giant IBM will build the world's most powerful supercomputer at a US government laboratory.

The machine, codenamed Roadrunner, could be four times more potent than the current fastest machine, BlueGene/L, also built by IBM.

The new computer is a "hybrid" design, using both conventional supercomputer processors and the new "cell" chip designed for Sony's PlayStation 3.

Roadrunner will be installed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico.

The laboratory is owned by the US Department of Energy (DOE). Eventually the machine could be used for a programme that ensures the US nuclear weapons stockpile remains safe and reliable, the DOE said in a statement.

Using supercomputers to simulate how nuclear materials age negates arguments for the resumption of underground nuclear testing.

Peak speeds

The new machine will be able to achieve "petaflop speeds," said IBM. One petaflop is the equivalent of 1,000 trillion calculations per second.

Running at peak speed, it will be able to crunch through 1.6 thousand trillion calculations per second.

Blue Gene/L, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California. (131,072 processors)
BGW Blue Gene, IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, New York (40,960 processors)
ASC Purple, Department of Energy, USA (12,208 processors)
Columbia, NASA Ames Research Center, USA (10,160 processors)
Tera-10, Commissariat a l'Energie Atomique (CEA), France (8,704 processors)
Source: Top 500 Supercomputers

By comparison, BlueGene/L is capable of mere "teraflop" (trillion calculations per second) speeds.

Installed at the DOE's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and also used for the DOE's Stockpile Stewardship Program, it has achieved 280.6 teraflops and is theoretically capable of 367 teraflops.

Roadrunner should be capable of much more. It will achieve its superfast performance using a hybrid design, built with off-the-shelf components.

The computer will contain 16,000 standard processors working alongside 16,000 "cell" processors, designed for the PlayStation 3 (PS3).

Each cell chip consists of eight processors controlled by a master unit that can assign tasks to each member of the processing team. Each cell is capable of 256 billion calculations per second.

The power of the cell chip means Roadrunner needs far fewer processors than its predecessors.

Spare power

This is not the first attempt by scientists to harness the power of the cell.

In August, scientists at Stanford University in California announced plans to distribute a program that could run on gamers' PS3s.

Sony's Cell chip
The cell processor was originally designed for Sony's PlayStation 3

The folding@home program would tap the cell's spare processing power to examine how the shape of proteins, critical to most biological functions, affect diseases such as Alzheimer's.

This distributed computing method uses each individual machine to process a small amount of data, with results fed back over the internet to a central machine where they can be viewed together.

The Stanford researchers say that 10,000 consoles running the program would give a performance equivalent to one petaflop. The team hopes eventually to enlist 100,000 machines.

Although a network of this size would in theory out-perform Roadrunner, the two systems would be used to solve different types of problem.

Computer talk

Both involve huge sets of data that are split into smaller packets to make them more manageable.

On a distributed computing network these small packets can be processed independently, with results brought together at key stages of a project.

For example a PC running the SETI@home project, which examines thousands of hours of radio telescope signals for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence, processes just a small chunk of data.

Finding a signal does not depend on the outcome of other PCs running the program.

However, on a supercomputer like Roadrunner, the different units must be able to "talk" with each other all of the time, which is vital for applications such as weather simulation which feature a huge number of constantly changing and interacting variables.

When Roadrunner is finished in 2008 it will cover 12,000 square feet (1,100 square metres) of floor space at Los Alamos National Laboratory

IBM says it will start shipping the new supercomputer later this year.

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