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Roadrunner outraces supercomputer rivals

In the latest ranking of high-performance computers, the IBM-based Roadrunner system at Los Alamos National Laboratory once again crosses the petaflop barrier.

Correction, 10:38 a.m. PST: This story misidentified the maker of the Power processor. The maker is IBM.

Jaguar vs. Roadrunner. It could be a new Saturday morning cartoon, or a Hollywood franchise to replace an Alien vs. Predator series that surely must have run its course by now.

But no. It is instead a shorthand for the two fastest supercomputers in the world, as reported in the latest Top500 listing, released Monday in conjunction with the SC08 conference in Austin, Texas.

IBM's Roadrunner supercomputer
IBM's Roadrunner supercomputer IBM

First place went to Roadrunner, an IBM supercomputer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Its performance in the running Top500's Linpack benchmark application was 1.105 petaflops per second. This was a repeat performance--Roadrunner also finished at the top of the heap in June's report on the biannual rankings, when it became the first supercomputer to cross the petaflop barrier. (A petaflop is a measure of calculations per second, with "peta-" meaning one thousand trillion of them.)

The blade servers in Roadrunner use a souped-up variation on the processor found in Sony's PlayStation 3, and the system's nodes are connected via a commodity Infiniband network.

At 1.059 petaflops, Jaguar wasn't far behind. That Cray XT5 supercomputer is located at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Supercomputing, as the name implies, involves complex equations and a lot of them. It's used to forecast the weather and suss out changes in climate, to foster research in nuclear power, and in locating underground oil reserves, and to help spacecraft get where they're going.

The Linpack benchmark isn't the be all and end all in toting up computing performance, but it does provide the researchers behind the Top500 listings with a fairly consistent way to test performance across disparate systems.

The Top500 results fluctuate from biannual report to biannual report, but the U.S. has long held sway in the supercomputing ranks.

Third place went to an SGI Altix ICE system called Pleiades, based at NASA's Ames Research Center facility, that turned in 487 teraflops ("tera-" meaning a mere trillion). IBM's BlueGene/L finished fourth at 478.2 teraflops (it was second in June at that same performance level) and its BlueGene/P finished fifth, at 450.3 teraflops.

Nine of the top 10 supercomputers in the November rankings are located in the United States, and seven of those--including Roadrunner, Jaguar, BlueGene/L, and BlueGene/P--are at U.S. Department of Energy facilities. The odd computer out, at No. 10, is the Dawning 5000A, located at the Shanghai Supercomputer Center in China.

The U.S. is also the leader overall, with 291 of the 500 high-performance computer systems. Europe has 151 (England first, Germany second) and Asia has 47 (Japan first, China second).

Multicore processors have become the way of the world in supercomputing. A healthy majority of the top 500 uses quad-core processors (336), followed by dual-core chips (153). IBM's PS3 processor variants use nine cores.

Three-quarters of the top 500 (379 systems) use Intel processors, while about 12 percent each use IBM's Power (60 systems) or Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron (59 systems).

The top 10 list

• Roadrunner, IBM, Los Alamos National Laboratory (1.105 petaflops)
• Jaguar, Cray, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (1.059 petaflops)
• Pleiades, SGI, NASA Ames (487 teraflops)
• BlueGene/L, IBM, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (478.2 teraflops)
• BlueGene/P, IBM, Argonne National Laboratory (450.3 teraflops)
• Ranger, Sun, Texas Advanced Computing Center (433.2 teraflops)
• Franklin, Cray, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (266.3 teraflops)
• unnamed, Cray, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (205 teraflops)
• Red Storm, Sandia/Cray, Sandia National Laboratories (204.2 teraflops)
• Dawning 5000A, Shanghai Supercomputer Center (results not specified)