IBM set to test the fastest computer in the world

Roadrunner may be first to break petaflop barrier -- the 4-minute mile of supercomputing

Engineers and technicians at IBM are assembling the final pieces of what they hope will soon become the world's most powerful supercomputer - doubling the speed of the today's fastest machine.

The latest version of IBM's Roadrunner supercomputer is a hybrid machine that its builders expect will bust through the lofty petaflop barrier when it's tested this month. Akin to the significance of breaking the four-minute mile in the supercomputing world, the petaflop barrier is a goal that many computer makers, including Cray, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems and SGI, are shooting for.

Don Grice, chief engineer on IBM's Roadrunner project, thinks it's a race that IBM will win.

"We will break the petascale barrier," he said at IBM's facilities. "The only unknown for me will be what day it is. I don't think there's any technical reason we won't make it. The only hurdle left is persistence."

The new supercomputer will be used at the US Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory to work on national security problems, run annual tests of various nuclear weapons systems and predict long-term climate changes, according to John Morrison, leader of the high-performance computing division at Los Alamos. He noted that the system will also be used to study the universe and human genes.

"It will enable us to tackle problems we couldn't tackle before," he said. "Essentially, we'll be able to run a different level of problems. We'll be able to do calculations that we wouldn't even consider before." Morrison noted that the lab's contract calls for the new Roadrunner to reach the petaflop performance level.

Grice said the new machine would need a single week to run a calculation that the fastest supercomputer 10 years ago would have needed 20 years to complete.

If Roadrunner does break the petaflop barrier this month, it will mark the first time that IBM's BlueGene system hasn't held the highest position in the Top 500 supercomputer list since November of 2004, according to Jack Dongarra, a co-creator of the Top 500 list.

A petaflop is 1,000 trillion calculations per second. BlueGene runs at 478 teraflops, which is a trillion operations per second.

"It's exciting because it most likely will be the first computer to break the petaflop barrier," said Dongarra. "It's the next golden ring of computing. It's the next big marker. Today, all of the Top 500 supercomputers are at the teraflop rate."

Dongarra, a distinguished professor at the University of Tennessee, noted that based on historical markers, the time is ripe to break a major computing barrier. Twenty-two years ago, a computer hit the gigaflop milestone and then 11 years ago the ASCI Red supercomputer was the first to hit a teraflop.

Dan Olds, an analyst with the Gabriel Consulting Group, said breaking the petaflop barrier won't just be a big deal for the industry but also for the researchers in various industries.

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