Post-Bulletin, Rochester, MN by Jeff Kiger
How fast is a petaflop?
Roadrunner operates at speeds exceeding one petaflop — one thousand trillion calculations per second.
• That’s roughly equivalent to the combined computing power of 100,000 of today’s fastest laptop computers.
• In the past 10 years, supercomputer power has increased about 1,000 times. Today, just three of Roadrunner’s 3,456 Tri-blade units have the same power as the 1998 fastest computer.
No matter which way you crunch the numbers, IBM’s latest project is big, fast and historic.
After many years of gunning for the elusive "petaflop" calculation speed record, an IBM Rochester-made supercomputer broke the one quadrillion calculations per second barrier last weekend.
"When you break any barrier like when the sound barrier was broken, it is a significant event," says Andy Schram, project executive for the aptly-named Roadrunner supercomputer.
Some of the important figure are:
• Two times is how much faster Roadrunner is than Blue Gene/L, IBM’s former track star and the fastest computer in the world in 2007.
• About 50 people at IBM Rochester developed and built the Roadrunner for the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
• $133 million is what Los Alamos has paid IBM for this calculating power.
• 3,060 Tri-Blades computing units fill Roadrunner’s racks.
• 2 Cell chips, which Rochester staff helped develop, sit n each Tri-Blade along with two standard, off-the-shelf chips.
• Three major gaming systems – the Nintendo Wii, Sony Playstation 3 and the XBox 360 – were IBM’s first uses of the Cell chips.
• 25 trucks will be needed to haul the new Roadrunner from New York to Los Alamos.
Roadrunner is being tested at IBM’s Poughkeepsie, N.Y., campus, because Rochester did not have enough space.
Scientists from Los Alamos were there during the weekend and they decided to try out a real calculation — a visual modeling of the human brain in action.
And quick as a thought, the long-standing petaflop hurdle was left in the dust.
Actually, Roadrunner first soared over that milestone on May 25, the Sunday before Memorial Day during a test.
It was not doing a real calculation, like last weekend, but Roadrunner did break the speed limit.
"A huge sense of relief" is how Peter Keller describes what the people working on the machine that night. Keller, who is part of the Rochester manufacturing team, was in Poughkeepsie that night.
"We just all looked around and said, ‘ We made it,’" he says.
A 50 petaflop machine is in the works, Schram says. And then the exaflop — a million trillion calculations per second — is the next target.
With all of this power, when will the "Terminator" scenario become a reality and computers take over mankind?
"It takes 2.6 megawatts to power it. The brain uses about 20 watts," All of these machines will be tethered to a really big power station where we humans can still walk around," said Schram with a chuckle. "It will be a while before we have any great competition from these type of machines."