New IBM supercomputer achieves petaflop

Big Blue breaks into the quadrillion calculation range with new Blue Gene/P supercomputer.

The petaflop era has begun.

IBM has devised a new Blue Gene supercomputer--the Blue Gene/P--that will be capable of processing more than 3 quadrillion operations a second, or 3 petaflops, a possible record. Blue Gene/P is designed to continuously operate at more than 1 petaflop in real-world situations.

Blue Gene/P marks a significant milestone in computing. Last November, the Blue Gene/L was ranked as the most powerful computer on the planet: it topped out at 280 teraflops, or 280 trillion operations a second during continuous operation.

Put another way, a Blue Gene/P operating at a petaflop is performing more operations than a 1.5-mile-high stack of laptops.

The development of Blue Gene/P seems certain to extend IBM's position atop the Top 500 Supercomputer list, which comes out this week at the International Supercomputing Conference in Dresden, Germany. IBM had 93 computers on the list when the rankings last came out in November; four were in the top 10.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory will deploy the first Blue Gene/P in the U.S. later this year. Meanwhile, in Germany, the Max Planck Society and the Forschungszentrum Julich research center will start to install a Blue Gene/P in late 2007. Others will be installed at Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Labs (New York facilities that have collaborated with IBM on other projects) and the Science and Technology Facilities Council in Cheshire, England.

Like the vast majority of other modern supercomputers, Blue Gene/P is composed of several racks of servers lashed together in clusters for large computing tasks, such as running programs that can graphically simulate worldwide weather patterns.

Technologies designed for these computers trickle down into the mainstream while conventional technologies and components are used to cut the costs of building these systems.

The chip inside Blue Gene/P consists of four PowerPC 450 cores running at 850MHz each. A 2x2 foot circuit board containing 32 of the Blue Gene/P chips can churn out 435 billion operations a second. Thirty two of these boards can be stuffed into a 6-foot-high rack.

The chip inside the Blue Gene/L contained two PowerPC cores running at 700MHz.

The 1-petaflop Blue Gene/P comes with 294,912 processors and takes up 72 racks in all. Hitting 3 petaflops takes an 884,736-processor, 216-rack cluster, according to IBM. The chips and other components are linked together in a high-speed optical network.

Several companies will be in the German city this week to tout supercomputer accomplishments. Sun Microsystems will use the show to show off its Constellation System, which features a switching architecture that Sun says will greatly enhance performance. The first Constellation System, which Sun hopes will be ready by October and is building in Texas, will provide 500 teraflops of performance at its peak. Constellation is capable of 1.7 petaflops.

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