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June 11, 2008
Also appeared in print Jun. 16, 2008, p. 12


World's Fastest Computer Debuts

New machine achieves sustained petaflop performance in tests

Jeff Johnson

Next month, a convoy of 21 tractor-trailers will unload the world's fastest computer at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Named "Roadrunner" for New Mexico's state bird, the supercomputer was created through a collaboration between LANL and IBM, which built and tested the unit at its Poughkeepsie, N.Y., plant.

SPEED DEMON IBM's lead engineer, Don Grice, inspects the world's fastest supercomputer at the plant before the machine is shipped to Los Alamos National Lab.

Roadrunner, the Department of Energy announced June 9, is the first computer to achieve a petaflop or 1,000 trillion operations per second of sustained performance. "It's a speed demon," says Thomas P. D'Agostino, administrator of DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration, adding that it is twice as fast as the next quickest supercomputer, which is located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Its primary purpose, he notes, is to certify the reliability of the U.S. stockpile of nuclear warheads without conducting underground nuclear explosions.

Along with speed, Roadrunner is efficient, using but half the electricity of other supercomputers. Its speed and efficiency are due to the computer's microprocessors, says Dave Turek, vice president of IBM supercomputing. He calls Roadrunner a "souped-up version" of Sony's PlayStation 3 because the advanced microprocessors' design grew from a joint project among Sony, Toshiba, and IBM to develop a specialized microprocessor for that top-end video-game console.

For the first six months of shakedown at LANL, officials say Roadrunner will explore unclassified research projects, such as complex calculations concerning climate change and the origin of the universe. Other calculations will involve studies of physical and chemical interactions at the submolecular level that could lead to an enhancement in cellulosic production of biofuels.

After the shakedown, however, about 75% of its work will be on classified defense R&D, including antiterrorism and nuclear nonproliferation issues and nuclear weapons research. About 25% of its computing time will be left available for unclassified R&D through collaborations with LANL scientists, lab officials say.

In all, Roadrunner has 18,000 microprocessors and 80 terabytes of memory housed in 288 refrigerator-sized racks, filling up 6,000 sq ft of floor space. Its connections require 57 miles of fiber optic cable. Despite its efficiency, it draws almost 4 MW of electricity.

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Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society


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