Page last updated at 12:00 GMT, Monday, 9 June 2008 13:00 UK

Supercomputer sets petaflop pace

By Jonathan Fildes
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

Roadrunner (IBM)
Roadrunner uses the powerful "cell" chip designed for the PS3

A supercomputer built with components designed for the Sony PlayStation 3 has set a new computing milestone.

The IBM machine, codenamed Roadrunner, has been shown to run at "petaflop speeds", the equivalent of one thousand trillion calculations per second.

The benchmark means the computer is twice as nimble as the current world's fastest machine, also built by IBM.

It will be installed at a US government laboratory later this year where it will monitor the US nuclear stockpile.

It will also be used for research into astronomy, genomics and climate change.

"We are getting closer to simulating the real world," Bijan Davari, vice president of next generation computing systems at IBM, told BBC News.

It would be of particular use for calculating risk in financial markets, he said.

"The latency of the calculations is so small that for all practical purposes it is real time."

Chip stacks

The current fastest supercomputer is IBM's Blue Gene/L, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

It is used in the US Department of Energy's Stockpile Stewardship Program, which oversees the country's nuclear weapons.

Blue Gene/L, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California. (478.2 teraflops; 212, 992 processors)
Blue Gene/P, Forschungszentrum Juelich, Germany. (167.3 teraflops; 65536 processors)
SGI Altix ICE 8200, SGI/New Mexico Computing Applications Center, Wisconsin, US. (126.9 teraflops; 14336 processors)
EKA - Cluster Platform 3000 BL460c, Computational Research Laboratories, Pune, India. (117.9 teraflops; 14240 processors)
Cluster Platform 3000 BL460c, government agency, Sweden. (102.8 teraflops; 13728 processors)
Source: Top 500 Supercomputers

It was recently upgraded and now runs at a speed of 478.2 teraflops (trillions of calculations per second), using 212,992 processors.

By comparison, Roadrunner will use fewer than 20,000 chips.

This is because the new computer is a so-called "hybrid" design, using both conventional supercomputer processors and the powerful "cell" chip designed for the PS3.

The eight-core chip runs at speeds greater than 4 GHz and was designed by a consortium of companies including IBM, Sony and Toshiba.

It has been modified for Roadrunner to allow it to handle a greater bandwidth of data and to carry out more specialist calculations.

Roadrunner packs more than 12,000 of the processors - known as "accelerators" - on top of nearly 7,000 standard processors.

The standard processors are used to handle the general computation needed to keep the machine running, whilst the cells are left to crunch vast swathes of unstructured data.

"For these kinds of simulations of very complex natural phenomena the cell chip is extremely powerful," said Dr Davari.

"It is a lot more effective than combing many, many, many more smaller, general purpose computational engines."

The machine was the first to pass through the petaflop barrier, said Dr Davari.

IBM BlueGene/L
Currently, BlueGene/L is the most powerful computer in the world

"The exciting part for me as a technical person is that we can now see the recipe for high performance computing for the next 10 to 15 years," he said.

It will now be disassembled and moved to New Mexico where it will be housed in 288 refrigerator-sized cases connected by 57 miles (92km) of fibre optic cable.

Although Roadrunner will run at extraordinary speeds, other computers could soon challenge its record.

IBM currently has another petaflop machine in the pipeline based on its Blue Gene/P technology.

When finished, it will be the world's fastest commercial supercomputer.

"Blue Gene/P continues the path of Blue/Gene L," said Dr Davari.

The machines share much of the same software and hardware.

Blue Gene/P will be installed at the Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois later this year.

Both Sun and Cray supercomputers have also unveiled plans for petaflop machines in the near future.

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