IBM's Roadrunner zooms to No. 1 on Top500 supercomputer list

IBM maintains hold on world's fastest machines

A supercomputer based on the Cell processor found in Sony's PlayStation 3 console has rocketed to No. 1 in the latest Top500 supercomputing ranking to become the most powerful computer in the world.

The IBM-developed machine, called Roadrunner, was benchmarked at 1.026 petaflops (a petaflop is equal to 1,000 trillion calculations per second), making it more than twice as fast as the top-ranked computer in the previous version of the ranking. The latest version of the list was published today at the International Supercomputing Conference in Dresden, Germany.

The machine pulls together the power of 12,240 Cell chips and 6,562 dual-core AMD Opteron processors in IBM QS22 blade servers. Announced first for use in the PlayStation 3, the Cell Broadband Engine chip was co-developed by Sony Corp., Toshiba Corp. and IBM. Each chip has a general-purpose Power PC processor and eight co-processing elements that are tuned to handle intensive operations such as high-definition graphics.

The computer was commissioned by the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration for use at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and cost about $100 million to make, IBM said last week.

The arrival of Roadrunner in the ranking pushes the IBM BlueGene/L system at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory off the top spot, which it has held since November 2004. That machine is now the second fastest in the world, with a maximum performance of 478.2 teraflops. Another IBM system, BlueGene/P, at the Argonne National Laboratory, is ranked third, and a Sun SunBlade x6420 Ranger at the University of Texas in Austin is ranked fourth. Another U.S. government machine, a Cray XT4 Jaguar at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is in fifth place.

The first non-U.S. machine in the list is the sixth-ranked BlueGene/P system at the Forschungszentrum Jülich in Germany. It was benchmarked at 180 teraflops. The fastest machine in the commercial world is the SGI Altix, which is owned by French oil company Total. It benchmarked at 106 teraflops.

IBM dominates not only the top 10 spots, but the overall Top500 list as well, with 210 of the fastest 500 machines. Its closest competitor is Hewlett-Packard Co., which has 183 systems in the ranking.

Intel chips are now found in 75% of all the machines, an increase from 71% in the last ranking, as its quad-core processors gain popularity. More than half the machines in the list are based on these processors.

Supercomputers are one of the first uses beyond the PlayStation 3 for the Cell chip, but others are envisaged.

Earlier this year, Toshiba demonstrated a television with a Cell Broadband Engine. The TV, which Toshiba said should be out by the end of next year, uses the Cell chip for real-time upscaling of standard-definition TV to high definition, and for displaying multiple video streams simultaneously for quick navigation of many TV channels.

Toshiba also plans to launch laptop PCs with a derivative of the Cell chip called the SpursEngine. The SpursEngine is a co-processor that will work with the laptop's main processor and handle graphics and multimedia tasks. The laptop should be out sometime before the end of March 2009.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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