Military supercomputer sets record

The new machine, which processed more than 1.026 quadrillion calculations per second, is more than twice as fast as the previous fastest supercomputer, the IBM BlueGene/L.

An American military supercomputer, assembled from components originally designed for video game machines, has reached a long-sought-after computing milestone by processing more than 1.026 quadrillion calculations per second.

The new machine is more than twice as fast as the previous fastest supercomputer, the IBM BlueGene/L, which is based at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

The new $133 million supercomputer, called Roadrunner in a reference to the state bird of New Mexico, was devised and built by engineers and scientists at IBM and Los Alamos National Laboratory, based in Los Alamos, N.M. It will be used principally to solve classified military problems to ensure that the nation's stockpile of nuclear weapons will continue to work correctly as they age. The Roadrunner will simulate the behavior of the weapons in the first fraction of a second during an explosion.

Before it is placed in a classified environment, it will also be used to explore scientific problems like climate change. The greater speed of the Roadrunner will make it possible for scientists to test global climate models with higher accuracy.

To put the performance of the machine in perspective, Thomas P. D'Agostino, the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said that if all 6 billion people on earth used hand calculators and performed calculations 24 hours a day and seven days a week, it would take them 46 years to do what the Roadrunner can in one day.

The machine is an unusual blend of chips used in consumer products and advanced parallel computing technologies. The lessons that computer scientists learn by making it calculate even faster are seen as essential to the future of both personal and mobile consumer computing.

The high-performance computing goal, known as a petaflop--one thousand trillion calculations per second--has long been viewed as a crucial milestone by military, technical and scientific organizations in the United States, as well as a growing group including Japan, China and the European Union. All view supercomputing technology as a symbol of national economic competitiveness.

By running programs that find a solution in hours or even less time--compared with as long as three months on older generations of computers--petaflop machines like Roadrunner have the potential to fundamentally alter science and engineering, supercomputer experts say. Researchers can ask questions and receive answers virtually interactively and can perform experiments that would previously have been impractical.

"This is equivalent to the four-minute mile of supercomputing," said Jack Dongarra, a computer scientist at the University of Tennessee who for several decades has tracked the performance of the fastest computers.

Each new supercomputing generation has brought scientists a step closer to faithfully simulating physical reality. It has also produced software and hardware technologies that have rapidly spilled out into the rest of the computer industry for consumer and business products.

Technology is flowing in the opposite direction as well. Consumer-oriented computing began dominating research and development spending on technology shortly after the cold war ended in the late 1980s, and that trend is evident in the design of the world's fastest computers.

The Roadrunner is based on a radical design that includes 12,960 chips that are an improved version of an IBM Cell microprocessor, a parallel processing chip originally created for Sony's PlayStation 3 video-game machine. The Sony chips are used as accelerators, or turbochargers, for portions of calculations.

The Roadrunner also includes a smaller number of more conventional Opteron processors, made by Advanced Micro Devices, which are already widely used in corporate servers.

"Roadrunner tells us about what will happen in the next decade," said Horst Simon, associate laboratory director for computer science at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "Technology is coming from the consumer electronics market and the innovation is happening first in terms of cell phones and embedded electronics."

The innovations flowing from this generation of high-speed computers will most likely result from the way computer scientists manage the complexity of the system's hardware.

Roadrunner, which consumes roughly three megawatts of power, or about the power required by a large suburban shopping center, requires three separate programming tools because it has three types of processors. Programmers have to figure out how to keep all of the 116,640 processor cores in the machine occupied simultaneously in order for it to run effectively.

"We've proved some skeptics wrong," said Michael R. Anastasio, a physicist who is director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. "This gives us a window into a whole new way of computing. We can look at phenomena we have never seen before."

Solving that programming problem is important because in just a few years personal computers will have microprocessor chips with dozens or even hundreds of processor cores. The industry is now hunting for new techniques for making use of the new computing power. Some experts, however, are skeptical that the most powerful supercomputers will provide useful examples.

"If Chevy wins the Daytona 500, they try to convince you the Chevy Malibu you're driving will benefit from this," said Steve Wallach, a supercomputer designer who is chief scientist of Convey Computer, a start-up firm based in Richardson, Tex.

Those who work with weapons might not have much to offer the video gamers of the world, he suggested.

Many executives and scientists see Roadrunner as an example of the resurgence of the United States in supercomputing.

Although American companies had dominated the field since its inception in the 1960s, in 2002 the Japanese Earth Simulator briefly claimed the title of the world's fastest by executing more than 35 trillion mathematical calculations per second. Two years later, a supercomputer created by IBM reclaimed the speed record for the United States. The Japanese challenge, however, led Congress and the Bush administration to reinvest in high-performance computing.

"It's a sign that we are maintaining our position," said Peter J. Ungaro, chief executive of Cray, a maker of supercomputers. He noted, however, that "the real competitiveness is based on the discoveries that are based on the machines."

Having surpassed the petaflop barrier, IBM is already looking toward the next generation of supercomputing. "You do these record-setting things because you know that in the end we will push on to the next generation and the one who is there first will be the leader," said Nicholas M. Donofrio, an IBM executive vice president.

By breaking the petaflop barrier sooner than had been generally expected, the United States' supercomputer industry has been able to sustain a pace of continuous performance increases, improving a thousandfold in processing power in 11 years. The next thousandfold goal is the exaflop, which is a quintillion calculations per second, followed by the zettaflop, the yottaflop and the xeraflop.

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