IBM's Roadrunner set to smash supercomputing marks

Top500 list of speediest machines is now out, but upcoming IBM computer will top a quadrillion operations a second--more than double what we can do today.

IBM once again dominated the competition in semiannual rankings of supercomputers, but the big news is what's coming next year.

Big Blue is working on a computer nicknamed "Roadrunner" that will combine Cell processors, a family of chips found inside the PlayStation 3, and processors from Advanced Micro Devices.

Roadrunner, which will be delivered to the U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory in summer 2008, will be capable of performing more than a quadrillion operations, or a petaflop, when it's fully operational. IBM helped design and build the Cell chip and has been looking for ways to expand its commercial potential.

A computer that can churn a petaflop has been a longstanding goal for many manufacturers. IBM had the fastest computer on the Top500 Supercomputer Sites list, which was released Monday at the SC07 conference in Reno, Nev. The top machine, the Blue Gene/L supercomputer--located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory--is capable of 478.2 trillion operations, or 478.2 teraflops a second. Thus, Roadrunner will be twice as powerful.

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Credit: Lawrence Livermore
National Laboratory
IBM's Blue Gene/L supercomputer
ranks No. 1 on the latest Top500 list.

Those types of giant leaps, though, are becoming common in the supercomputing world thanks in large part to the magic of clustering. Years ago, computer scientists built large-scale monolithic supercomputers that were an indivisible whole. Now, supercomputers are assembled through racks of smaller servers woven together through thousands of high-speed links. If old supercomputers were skyscrapers, the new ones are housing subdivisions.

Lawrence Livermore's Blue Gene/L, for instance, sat atop the list six months ago too, but it was only churning out 280.6 teraflops. The cluster was substantially upgraded since the last test.

The system ranked last on the list would have been ranked No. 255 just six months ago; 406 of the computers on the list were defined as clusters.

In all, IBM placed four computers in the top 10, 38 in the top 100, and 232 in the overall list of 500. Back in June, IBM had six computers in the top 10 but only 192 in the overall list of 500. The No. 2 system on the list, a Blue Gene/P located in a lab in Germany that's similar to but smaller than the one in Livermore, clocked in at 167 teraflops.

Hewlett-Packard had the second most supercomputers on the list with 166. HP actually had a few more computers on the list than IBM six months ago. For most of the past several years, IBM has had the most computers on the list.

Intel processors expanded their presence on the list. A total of 354 computers relied on Intel processors, up from 289 six months ago. AMD still ranked No. 2 among processor manufacturers, but saw the number of computers that use its chips decline from 105 six months ago to 78 today.

India cracked the top 10 for the first time. The Computational Research Laboratories--a subsidiary of the Tata conglomerate, in Pune, India--installed a Hewlett-Packard Cluster Platform 3000 BL460c system that achieved 117.9 teraflops. Pune is becoming a major tech center in India.

The main measurement used in compiling the list is the Linpack measurement, which puts each system through its paces by having to solve a dense system of linear equations. The Top500 acknowledges it isn't a complete test of system performance, but it's a way to test for performance on a similar problem across each system. The need for a more complete benchmarking system has been discussed for several years.

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