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.

Snell says that within 10 years, these technologies will be stabilized enough to make their way into a corporate environment. He predicts that oil and gas companies will be vying for them to look for new techniques for extracting oil from reservoirs, pharmaceutical companies will want them for medication studies, and scientists studying the human genome might use them to model an entire liver from a single cell.

Michael Disabato, a vice president and service director at the Burton Group, says this kind of advancement will be critical to a select number of companies. "If you're a financial services company and want to predict the markets, it's going to mean a lot," he adds. "If you're at NASA trying to model the increasing number of failure modes for the space shuttle, you probably want one of these. But if you're in a hospital working on patient care, you probably won't need one of these."

But CIOs eager to get their hands on one of these supercomputers better pull out their checkbooks and make a whole lot of room.

Brandt says the initial base cluster for Roadrunner will cost about $35 million. He doesn't know at this point how much it will cost once the Cell chips are added. And if companies can afford that kind of price tag, they have to find room for the approximately 360 racks of servers they'll have to house, power, and cool. IBM expects it will take up 12,000 square feet of room--or about the size of three basketball courts.

The teraflop speed barrier was broken in 1997. A teraflop is 1 trillion calculations per second. A petaflop is a thousand times that speed, or a quadrillion, which is a one followed with 15 zeros. At this point, Blue Gene is still the fastest supercomputer on the block. Installed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., the machine is based on IBM's Power chip. It peaks at more than 360 teraflops. But when Roadrunner gets the Cell chip addition, it should be four to eight times faster than Blue Gene is today.

Don't count Blue Gene out, though, says Brandt. They're still working to speed it up and expect it to pass the petaflop barrier as well.

Brandt says he's looking forward to having both supercomputers pass the petaflop barrier.

"They're both capable of hitting a petaflop and beyond," says Brandt, adding that Blue Gene is ideal for life sciences calculations, while Roadrunner will be better suited to run calculations for weapons codes, along with seismic and weather forecasting. "It's not a race."

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