IBM's Roadrunner breaks petaflop barrier, tops supercomputer list

In the twice-yearly list of the fastest computers on the planet, IBM has 5 of the top 10 most powerful computers, including the No. 1 spot.

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.
Erica Ogg
3 min read
IBM Roadrunner supercomputer
IBM's Roadrunner supercomputer was named the fastest supercomputer in the world Wednesday after breaking the petaflop barrier earlier this month. IBM

Good news for green tech: The fastest supercomputer in the world is also one of the most energy efficient. That's according to the Top500 supercomputers list, to be released Wednesday at the International Supercomputing Conference in Dresden, Germany.

Twice yearly, the list measures the 500 most powerful computer systems available commercially. This year, the 31st time the list has been put together, the honor of top supercomputer goes to IBM's Roadrunner, which is housed at the U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory. It's the first system to reach 1.026 petaflops (1 petaflop is equal to a quadrillion, or one thousand trillion, calculations per second).

For perspective, last year's most powerful computer, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's BlueGene/L--also made by IBM--reached 208.6 teraflops. This year that computer ranked No. 2, reaching a max processing speed of 478.2 teraflops.

Fun fact: the fastest supercomputer in the world--used to monitor the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile--is really just a PlayStation 3 on steroids. Roadrunner is based on the IBM QS22 blades, which are built using advanced versions of the Cell processor in Sony's PS3. It also runs using x86 chips from Advanced Micro Devices, making it the world's first hybrid supercomputer.

In total, Roadrunner takes up 278 refrigerator-size server racks, and connects 6,562 dual-core AMD Opteron and 12,240 Cell chips.

IBM, which continues its dominance of supercomputing, makes 210 of the 500 systems, including 5 of the top 10. Hewlett-Packard is close behind, however. HP makes 183 of the fastest computers, including the No. 8 fastest system known as EKA, located in Computational Research Laboratories' data center in Pune, India.

Rounding out the top 10 is Sun Microsystem's Ranger at No. 4, Cray's Jaguar at No. 5, SGI's Encanto at No. 7, and SGI's Altix at No. 10.

On the processor side, Intel dominates the high-end market with 75 percent of all systems on the list and 90 percent of the quad-core based systems that were ranked.

Supercomputing, which pits the highest-end machines against challenges such as forecasting the global climate in coming decades or finding oil reservoirs underground, is a fast-changing field. The Top500 list once again had the most turnover compared with the preceding list, according to the researchers who compile it.

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 that Linpack 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 under discussion for several years.

Some additional interesting statistics about the June 2008 list:

* Quad-core processors are used in just over half of the systems.

* The bulk of the systems (208 of the 500) contain between 2,049 and 4,096 processors. That's more than double the systems that used that amount just six months ago.

* Four of the top five computers (Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 5) are located in U.S. Department of Energy labs.

* The U.S. continues to be home to the most computing power in the world. Just over half of the systems (257) are located in the U.S. The U.K. is next with 53, followed by Germany with 46, France with 34, Japan with 22, and China with 12.

After "not specified," the most popular application area for these superfast computers is finance (15.2 percent of the list), followed by research (10 percent), geophysics (9.8 percent), information service (6.2 percent), and service (5.2 percent).