IBM's Roadrunner Supercomputer Sets World-Record Speed

To be housed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, IBM built Roadrunner for the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration to ensure the safety and reliability of the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile. The supercomputer, named after New Mexico's state bird, will also be used for astronomy, energy, human genome science and climate change research.

So, exactly how fast is the supercomputer? IBM said the speed is roughly equivalent to the combined computing power of 100,000 of today's fastest laptop computers—users would need a stack of laptops 1.5 miles high to match Roadrunner's performance. It would also take the entire population of the earth--about 6 billion people--each working a handheld calculator at the rate of 1 second per calculation more than 46 years to do what Roadrunner can do in one day.

IBM said that in the past 10 years, supercomputer power has increased about 1,000 times. Today, just three of Roadrunner's 3,456 tri-blade units have the same power as the 1998 fastest computer. Now, a complex physics calculation that will take Roadrunner one week to complete would have taken the 1998 machine 20 years to finish.

IBM also said Roadrunner, the world's first hybrid supercomputer, uses a first-of-a-kind design, the Cell Broadband Engine. Originally designed for video game platforms such as the Sony Playstation 3, the engine will work in conjunction with AMD's x86 processors. Other companies that contributed components and technology include Emcore, Flextronics, Mellanox and Voltaire.

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In total, the computer connects 6,948 dual-core AMD Opteron chips on IBM Model LS21 blade servers, in addition to 12,960 Cell engines on IBM Model QS22 blade servers.

Standard processing--such as file system I/O--is handled by the Opteron processors. Mathematical and CPU-intensive elements are directed to the cell processors.

The system has 80 terabytes of memory and is housed in 288 refrigerator-size IBM BladeCenter racks taking up 6,000 square feet. Roadrunner's 10,000 connections--both Infiniband and Gigabit Ethernet--require 57 miles of fiber-optic cable and weigh a whopping 500,000 pounds.

The supercomputer's custom configuration uses two IBM QS22 blade servers and one IBM LS21 blade server that are combined into a specialized "tri-blade" configuration. Each tri-blade unit can run at 400 billion operations per second (400 Gigaflops). In total, Roadrunner has 3,456 tri-blades.

Roadrunner was built, tested and benchmarked in IBM's Poughkeepsie, N.Y., plant, which is also the home of the ASCI series of supercomputers the company built for the U.S. government in the late 1990s. IBM's site in Rochester, Minn., contributed to the project by constructing the specialized tri-blade servers. In addition, engineers developed the computers' software in IBM's Austin, Texas, and Yorktown Heights, N.Y., research labs. Roadrunner operates on open-source Linux software from Red Hat.

Despite its massive size, IBM calls Roadrunner an "energy miser." The Armonk, N.Y.-based company said that compared to most traditional supercomputer designs, Roadrunner's hybrid format sips power (3.9 megawatts) and delivers efficiency at 376 million calculations per watt.

As for future plans for Roadrunner, IBM is developing new software to make Cell-powered hybrid computing broadly accessible. Roadrunner's massive software effort targets commercial applications for hybrid supercomputing. Along with corporate and academic partners, IBM is developing an open-source ecosystem that is intended to bring hybrid supercomputing to financial services, energy exploration and medical imaging industries, among others.

Later this summer IBM will load the behemoth supercomputer onto 21 tractor trailer trucks to deliver it to the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico.