Los Alamos: Roadrunner as important as first computer

IBM now working on second petascale supercomputer for national laboratory

A research director at Los Alamos National Laboratories said the addition of a peta-scale supercomputer is as big a leap forward as when scientists got their hands on their first computer ever.

IBM's Roadrunner supercomputer, which was built for the federal Department of Energy's Los Alamos labs, smashed the high-tech equivalent of the four-minute mile last month by breaking the lofty petaflop barrier.

The recently completed and tested system is still housed at an IBM facility in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where three Los Alamos research teams, totaling 50 people, traveled from New Mexico to get an early start on using the supercomputer for three different research projects.

Scientists are first using Roadrunner -- a hybrid system running AMD Opteron processors and Cell chips -- to run calculations connected to mapping the visual cortex in the human brain, studying ocean currents and climate change.

"I think it allows us to explore problems we couldn't think of before, but my real hope is that this is a new generation of how we look at science," said Terry Wallace, principal associate director for science, technology and engineering at Los Alamos. "This is as big as when scientists were first given a computer. It's like driving to work on a tricycle instead of a real car."

The new machine, according to IBM, would need a single week to run a calculation that the fastest supercomputer 10 years ago would have needed 20 years to complete.

The new supercomputer, however, should soon have some peta-scale company.

IBM originally built a non-hybrid Roadrunner computer for Los Alamos. Running just AMD Opteron chips, this first machine didn't have the speed boost from the Cell chips to launch it into the peta-scale range. That's all about to change.

Wallace told Computerworld that Los Alamos and IBM technicians and engineers will work together to beef up the original Roadrunner with Cell chips so it, too, can perform at petaflop speeds. Calling the new and improved supercomputer, Son of Roadrunner, Wallace said he expects it to eventually run non-classified experiments. The first peta-scale machine will handle classified research.

"In a year or two, the new machine will double a petaflop," said Wallace.

IBM executives announced last week that Roadrunner sustained a speed of 1.026 quadrillion calculations per second. That's about twice as fast as the next-fastest supercomputer, IBM's BlueGene/L, which is based at the DOE's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

A petaflop is a quadrillion floating-point operations per second. The petaflop barrier, which has been the golden ring of supercomputing since the teraflop barrier was broken 11 years ago, is a goal that many companies, including Cray, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems and SGI, have been shooting for. IBM beat them to the punch, but the other contenders are still at its heels.

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