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9/8/2006
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It's No Game: IBM Uses PlayStation Chip For New Supercomputer

IBM is working with Los Alamos to install the first phase of the latest supercomputer, dubbed Roadrunner, by next month. The hybrid machine will get a speed boost enabling it to break the petaflop barrier when the Cell processors are added to AMD's Opteron technology.

By harnessing a processor originally built for the upcoming Sony PlayStation 3, IBM is building a new supercomputer that's expected to break the petaflop barrier by topping speeds of 1,000 trillion calculations per second.

The new computer, code-named Roadrunner, is a joint project between IBM and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where it will be installed. Henry Brandt, a senior technical staff member with IBM, said the supercomputer will be built in two phases. The first phase, which cost Congress $35 million, consists of a base cluster that runs on the Linux operating system and uses IBM System x 3755 servers based on AMD Opteron technology.

That phase is slated to be shipped to the national lab next month.

But the computer's real speed boost will come in late in 2007 or early 2008, when the second phase, which doesn't yet have a price tag, rolls out. At that point, the cluster will be upgraded with the addition of Cell processors, which were originally designed for video game platforms. The hybrid machine will run both types of clusters, boosting peak performance to an expected 1.6 petaflops.

"General microprocessors are built to do everything quite well," says Addison Snell of IDC. "Specialized calculations that are highly repeated can be off-loaded to the game processor."

Snell says the real challenge lies in building software sophisticated enough to work with the hardware.

"It's difficult to write an application to divide the work between two different processors," he explains. "The program has to be smart enough to look at the calculation and assign it to this process or that process. You're essentially rewriting applications from the ground up. It's going to be a lot of work to get it to work."

Corporate Uses

The U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration is pushing the supercomputer project forward.

Brandt explained that the government stopped testing nuclear weapons in Nevada in the '90s, but it still needs to maintain the nuclear warheads that it has in stockpiles. "Without the ability to test them, there's aging issues," he says. "Their requirements are extreme because of the scale of the computations. You have to simulate the [nuclear warhead] stockpile aging process in a very precise way."

But the national laboratories won't be the only ones taking advantage of these supercomputers.

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