Editor's Desk | Dawn of the petaflop

The Energy Department's new supercomputer has twice the speed of any other

GCN Editor in Chief
Wyatt Kash


It's not surprising that major
advances in computing performance
no longer garner the awe or
attention they once did. Performance
leaps have become such a
part of everyday life ' and the
scale of computing power and
storage capacity has become so
incomprehensible ' that it no
longer seems to matter how fast
a computer can run or how many
gigabytes of content can fit on a
disk drive.

Still, it was hard not to marvel
at the news last month that a
new supercomputer built by IBM
for the Energy Department had
achieved a peak performance of
1.026 petaflops ' more than
1,000 trillion calculations per

The next four fastest supercomputers
on the latest biannual
compilation of the world's 500
most powerful supercomputers
are half the speed of IBM's latest

Those four blazingly fast machines
are being left in the
proverbial dust by the new speed
demon nicknamed Roadrunner.
Commissioned by the National
Nuclear Security Administration
at a cost of about $130 million,
Roadrunner hardly resembles its
nimble-footed namesake.

The supercomputer consists of
288 refrigerator-sized IBM Blade-
Center racks occupying 6,000
square feet. This is one of the first
computers to deploy large numbers
of the Cell Broadband Engine
processors designed in a collaborative
effort by Sony, Toshiba and
IBM for the Sony PlayStation 3
video game console.

With little increase in power
consumption, these souped-up
processors deliver five to six
times the performance of the
ones found in gaming consoles.
Roadrunner divides tasks by assigning
standard processing to
dual-core chips from Advance
Micro Devices and processor-intensive
mathematical work to
the Cell chips.

In years to come, Roadrunner
will be remembered not only for
breaking the petaflop barrier but
also for overcoming some of the
devilish power and cooling challenges
that accompany computing
at this level.

Beyond bragging rights, Roadrunner
will allow scientists to simulate
the decay of nuclear materials.
It will also assist with research
into astronomy, energy, the
human genome and climate

And it will perform that work at
a record pace: Ten years ago, the
fastest supercomputer in the
world would have needed 20
years to finish a problem Roadrunner
can complete in a week.

Welcome to the Petaflop Era.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.


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