US military makes world’s fastest supercomputer

June 9th, 2008 - 9:34 pm ICT by IANS  

New York, June 9 (IANS) A US military supercomputer, assembled from components originally designed for video game machines, has reached a long-sought-after computing milestone by processing more than 1.026 quadrillion calculations per second. The new machine is more than twice as fast as the previous fastest supercomputer, the IBM BlueGene/L, which is based at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, reported the New York Times Monday.

To put the performance of the machine in perspective, Thomas P. D’Agostino, the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said that if all six billion people on earth used hand calculators and performed calculations 24 hours a day and seven days a week, it would take them 46 years to do what the Roadrunner can in one day.

The $133 million supercomputer, called Roadrunner in a reference to the state bird of New Mexico, was devised and built by engineers and scientists at IBM and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

It will be used principally to solve classified military problems to ensure that the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons will continue to work correctly as they age.

Before it is placed in a classified environment, it will also be used to explore scientific problems like climate change. The greater speed of the Roadrunner will make it possible for scientists to test global climate models with higher accuracy.

The high-performance computing goal, known as a petaflop - one thousand trillion calculations per second - has long been viewed as a crucial milestone by military, technical and scientific organisations in the US, as well as a growing group including Japan, China and the EU.

The Roadrunner is based on a radical design that includes 12,960 chips that are an improved version of an IBM Cell microprocessor, a parallel processing chip originally created for Sony’s PlayStation 3 video-game machine.

“Roadrunner tells us about what will happen in the next decade,” said Horst Simon, associate laboratory director for computer science at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “Technology is coming from the consumer electronics market and the innovation is happening first in terms of cellphones and embedded electronics.”

Roadrunner, which consumes roughly three megawatts of power, or about the power required by a large suburban shopping center, requires three separate programming tools because it has three types of processors. Programmers have to figure out how to keep all of the 116,640 processor cores in the machine occupied simultaneously in order for it to run effectively.

Many executives and scientists see Roadrunner as an example of the resurgence of the US in supercomputing.

Although American companies had dominated the field since its inception in the 1960s, in 2002 the Japanese Earth Simulator briefly claimed the title of the world’s fastest by executing more than 35 trillion mathematical calculations per second.

Two years later, a supercomputer created by IBM reclaimed the speed record for the US. The Japanese challenge, however, led Congress and the Bush administration to reinvest in high-performance computing.

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