NNSA revs Roadrunner to petaflop performance

A National Nuclear Security Administration supercomputer has achieved an operational rate of 1,000 trillion calculations per second ' or 1 petaflop ' making the Roadrunner the world's fastest computer, the agency announced today.

The execution rate is more than double the speed of the top computers on the biannual Top 500 list of the world's fastest computers.

'It's a speed demon,' said NNSA Administrator Thomas D'Agostino. 'Speed is important here. We have stopped underground nuclear testing,' and the new supercomputer will be used primarily to run simulations of nuclear reactions at the subatomic level to help ensure the safety of the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile. NNSA commissioned IBM Corp. to build the computer in 2006 for Los Alamos National Laboratory for around $130 million.

In addition to being fast, the Roadrunner is also energy efficient. It operates at five times the speed of many other supercomputers while using only one-half the energy, said Dave Turek, vice president of deep computing at IBM. Before recent developments in architecture, programming and processor design, the energy requirements for operating and cooling such a computer would have been 'beyond the pale' for Los Alamos, he said.

The system is housed in an IBM facility in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 288 refrigerator-sized, IBM BladeCenter racks occupying 6,000 square feet, the company said. It expects to ship the supercomputer to Los Alamos in July.

The computer will be used primarily to simulate the decay of nuclear materials, but it will also assist with research in astronomy, energy, human genome science and climate change.

It is one of the first computers to deploy large numbers of Cell Broadband Engine processors, designed in a collaborative effort by Sony, Toshiba and IBM for the Sony PlayStation video game console. Turek said the Cell processors used in Roadrunner are a souped-up version of those used in the gaming console, with five to six times the performance but little increase in power consumption.

The supercomputer runs 12,960 Cell processors on IBM BladeCenter QS22 blade servers and 6,948 dual-core Opteron chips from Advanced Micro Devices on IBM LS21 blade servers.

Roadrunner first broke the barrier of sustained petaflop performance May 25 in a two-hour benchmark calculation. Last weekend, it again achieved sustained petaflop performance while running an Energy Department application, said Michael Anastasio, the Los Alamos lab's director.

'With the exception of two other IBM machines, there are no other machines on the planet that have shown the ability to run a real application at anything over 100 teraflops,' or one-tenth of a petaflop, Turek said.

During its first six months at Los Alamos, Roadrunner will be given a performance test with unclassified applications, including simulations of HIV, cellulosic biofuel production, and studies of dark matter and dark energy in the universe. After that, it will be used primarily for classified NNSA work, although some capacity will be made available to outside research and academic institutions.

NNSA has already ordered an additional one-fourth increase in capacity for classified work.

About the Authors

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


  • Pierce County

    CARES dashboard ensures county spending delivers results

    The CARES Act Funding Outcomes Dashboard helps Pierce County, Wash., monitor funding and key performance indicators for public health emergency response, economic stabilization and recovery, community response and resilience, and essential government services.

  • smart city challenge

    AI-based traffic management improves mobility, saves fuel, cuts pollution

    Researchers are developing a dynamic feedback traffic signal control system that reduces corridor-level fuel consumption by 20% while maintaining a safe and efficient transportation environment.

Stay Connected

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.