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Hybrid systems on course to speed corporate apps

Firms in some industries could use petaflop performance to perform complex calculations.

July 28, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - This version of the story originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition.

When you're dealing with nuclear weapons, figuring out problems and figuring them out fast is Job One. For scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, that means having the most computing power possible.

For about a year, the federal security research facility in Los Alamos, N.M., has used an IBM-built super??computer, dubbed Roadrunner, whose peak performance is about 70 teraflops.

Today, that's not enough. So Los Alamos is getting ready to fire up a new incarnation of IBM's Roadrunner, a hybrid machine that will provide the scientists with a lot more power -- 1.026 quadrillion calculations per second -- once it's installed this fall.

The $200 million hybrid system still runs the AMD Opteron chips of the original Roadrunner but adds Cell chips that were first designed for the PlayStation 3 gaming console. In tests conducted this spring, the new supercomputer became the first machine to break the petaflop barrier.

Much of the performance boost came from the Cell chip, developed jointly by IBM, Toshiba Corp. and Sony Computer Entertainment Inc., to handle high-performance computations for video games. That also makes it will suited to handle other complex calculations, and "bitwise" operations like generating random numbers.

The well-publicized tests have attracted the attention of IT managers in a variety of industries who increasingly need significant performance boosts without the corresponding rise in energy demands.

The companies that are generally out in front of new technologies -- financial services firms, pharmaceutical manufacturers and petroleum giants -- are expected to be the first to take on hybrid computing commercially.

The hardware is very costly, and significant work is often required to adapt software to the technology, leaving early adoption to large firms with big budgets to take on projects that push the envelope.

At this point, a major retailer probably wouldn't want to use a large hybrid system to run a network backbone. But for, say, a Wall Street company that needs to gauge risk and price derivatives, a hybrid-enhanced performance boost may be just what the CIO ordered.

Steve Conway, an analyst at research firm IDC, noted that some companies have turned to multicore processors for added performance but have found that applications and calculations are running more slowly than they did using single-core chips.

Definition

Hybrid computer: A computer running more than one type of processor. IBM's Roadrunner hybrid, for instance, runs a combination of AMD Opterons and IBM Cell chips, which accelerate the processing of complex applications.

"[Performance issues] are causing a real shift in the capability to get the work done," he said. "It's no secret that microprocessor speeds stalled out a few years ago. [Computer makers] need to do something, [so] they're adding accelerators."

Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc. in Beaverton, Ore., predicted that 40% of Fortune 1,000 companies will be using large hybrid computers within five years.

Repsol YPF SA is now working with IBM to build a supercomputer that will help it more clearly image oil reserves buried 30,000 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, said Francisco Ortigosa, director of geophysics at the Madrid-based oil and gas company.

The hybrid system will run a combination of IBM's PowerPC processor and PowerXCell 8i chip, a souped-up version of the Cell processor, Ortigosa said. Slated to be up and running early this fall, the system is expected to have a peak performance of 120 teraflops, which likely would make it one of the top 10 most powerful supercomputers in the world.

"The benefit for the business is significant," Ortigosa said. "The oil business is a business of managing risks. It is very difficult to see the Earth's interior. The clearer the picture, the more accurate the risks can be estimated and the costs reduced."

Repsol YPF is using hybrid computing technology to map oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico.


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