Try catching this speedy Roadrunner

June 16, 2008

by Mark Ollig

Scientists have made public the world’s fastest supercomputer.

May 25 a computer performed 1,000 trillion calculations per second in a continuous and sustained application for two hours.

The supercomputer’s “1 Pflop/s” processing record was accomplished by engineers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory and IBM.

One “petaflops” (1 Pflop/s) is 1,000 trillion (peta) floating operations (or calculations) per second.

This remarkable achievement was accomplished using the world’s first “hybrid supercomputer.”

This supercomputer is called the “Roadrunner” and was named after the New Mexico state bird . . . (beep! beep!) . . . sorry Wile E. Coyote.

There is even a Minnesota connection. IBM’s plant in Rochester contributed to this project by building the specialized “tri-blade servers.”

Each tri-blade server can run at 400 billion operations per second (400 Gigaflops).

A total of 3,456 tri-blades are in the Roadrunner supercomputer.

The Roadrunner occupies 6,000 square feet of floor space and is inter-connected with 57 miles of fiber optic cables. It weighs 500,000 pounds.

This supercomputer has 80 terabytes worth of memory storage.

The Roadrunner is made mostly from commercial parts.

Some parts include 6,948 dual-core Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) Opteron central processors and 12,960 “cell broadband engines.”

Roadrunner’s operating system (OS) uses the open-source Linux software platform.

What is the going price these days for a hybrid supercomputer?

The Roadrunner supercomputer was built for a cool $100 million dollars.

Its computing power alone equals the combined processing power of 100,000 of today’s most powerful laptops.

The laptops would be stacked 1.5 miles high.

To get a perception of the Roadrunner’s processing speed, if all six and a half billion of us folks here on earth each operated a handheld calculator and performed a calculation at the rate of one second per calculation, it would take us 46 years to finish a single calculation which the Roadrunner computer can do in one day.

The everyday calculator we use operates at about 10 floating operations per second (flop/s). Each time we perform a calculation it only requires a single operation. Any response time below 0.1 seconds from the calculator seems instantaneous to us.

How fast is one petaflop?

Roadrunner is capable of operating at speeds exceeding one petaflop, which is equal to one thousand trillion calculations per second, or one million billion calculations per second, or one quadrillion calculations per second.

This computer was initially developed to simulate the results of nuclear explosions.

Recently the Roadrunner supercomputer once again obtained a processing speed of 1 Pflop/s when it processed several applications involving classified nuclear weapons work.

“The computer is a speed demon. It will allow us to solve tremendous problems,” said Thomas D’Agostino, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees nuclear weapons research and cares for the nuclear warhead stockpile.

Alongside other supercomputers, the Roadrunner will be key “to assure the safety and security of our [weapons] stockpile,” said D’Agostino. With its extraordinary speed it will be able to simulate the performances of a warhead and help weapons scientists track warhead aging,” he said.

The Roadrunner supercomputer will also be used in other fields, including civilian engineering, medicine and science.

It may help in developing and designing more fuel efficient cars also.

Michael Anastasio, director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, said the Roadrunner will be used for the first four to six months doing this type of “unclassified” work.

Anastasio said using the supercomputer’s processing power for unclassified applications and research is expected to be used by Los Alamos scientists and others as well.

He went on to say some of the applications may include researching a vaccine for the HIV virus, producing bio-fuels called “cellulosic ethanol” and understanding the origins of the universe.

“This is a huge and remarkable achievement,” said David Turek, vice president of IBM’s supercomputing program.

Turek said the computer’s two hour test on May 25 “…achieved a “petaflop” speed of sustained performance, something no other computer in history had ever done.”

Over six years of work by the IBM and Los Alamos engineers was spent designing this computer technology.

I was surprised when Turek said, “Some elements of the Roadrunner can be traced back to popular video games…in some ways [it is] a very souped-up Sony PlayStation 3.”

Turek was quoted saying, “We took the basic [microprocessor] chip [cell broadband engine] design [of a Sony PlayStation] and advanced its capability.”

Your humble columnist is trying to imagine what playing the video game “Grand Theft Auto IV” on this $100 million dollar supercomputer would be like.

The Roadrunner computer is currently located at the IBM research laboratory in New York.

In July it will be moved via 21 tractor trailer trucks to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Visit the “Web Site of The Week” forum at the Herald Journal web site for video links, pictures and more information about the Roadrunner supercomputer.

The Los Alamos Laboratory is at http://www.lanl.gov.