Fastest supercomputer a 'speed demon'

Roadrunner was always expected to be fast out of the blocks. And after a test run one night in the city of Poughkeepsie, New York, its creators were far from disappointed.

Built from microchips originally destined for games consoles, Roadrunner is the world’s latest supercomputer. On Monday it was officially crowned the fastest computer around, having performed a record million billion calculations per second.

As an indication of how fast this is, manufacturers explained that if six billion people were to do one sum a second on calculator, it would take 46 years to do what Roadrunner could do in a day.
The world’s first supercomputer, the Cray 1, built in the mid-1970s, would take 1 500 years to finish a calculation that Roadrunner would perform in two hours.

David Turek, vice-president of IBM’s supercomputing programs, likened Roadrunner to “a very souped-up Sony PlayStation 3”. The $120-million supercomputer was named after New Mexico’s state bird, and is more than twice as fast as the previous record holder, another IBM machine called Blue Gene.

By harnessing the power of 116 640 processors working in concert, Roadrunner surpassed a milestone in computing power to enter a new era of what those familiar with such things call petaflop computing. Peta means a million billion, while a flop is a type of calculation.

“We had teams working around the clock,” said IBM’s Kevin Roark. “Once they got it hooked up, it was just a couple of days before they broke the record. Everyone here is ecstatic. There were people who doubted it was even possible.” The record was broken at 3.30am on May 26.

Next month, the 230-tonne machine will be loaded on to 21 trucks and hauled across the country, from IBM’s east coast facility to New Mexico. There, it will become the American military’s latest toy, when it is installed, along with 57 miles of fibre-optic cable, at Los Alamos National Laboratory, birthplace of the atomic bomb.

For six months, the computer will direct its formidable processing power at scientific problems. It will analyse how HIV vaccines should best be administered, and map the region of the human brain that governs vision.

In another series of tests, it will churn out data on whether firing laser beams into plasmas will trigger nuclear fusion, which advocates believe could one day bring us almost limitless cheap energy. Other projects will focus on testing and improving the accuracy of climate-change models.

The first six months will give operators time to get used to the machine, and to iron out any bugs and glitches, before it begins its real task of providing classified data to help assess the safety, and readiness, of the United States nuclear arsenal.

Roadrunner will be used by nuclear weapons experts at Los Alamos to simulate the first fractions of a second of a nuclear detonation. Additional computing units will be linked to Roadrunner, allowing a quarter of its power to remain available for unclassified projects.

Speaking on Monday, the US Secretary of Energy, Samuel Bodma, called Roadrunner an “enormous accomplishment”, adding: “Roadrunner will not only play a key role in maintaining the US nuclear deterrent, it will also contribute to solving our global energy challenges, and open new windows of knowledge in the basic scientific research fields.”

Thomas D’Agostino, head of the US national nuclear security administration, which oversees nuclear weapons research and maintains the warhead stockpile, described it as a “speed demon”. He added: “It will allow us to solve tremendous problems.”—

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