Roadrunner speeds to the front

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By Roger Snodgrass

Los Alamos National Laboratory captured top spot in the global supercomputer derby with its new Roadrunner machine by IBM.


LANL’s computer won the Top500 competition in June, only weeks after it became the first computer in the world to break the petaflop speed barrier. Roadrunner was clocked at slightly more than one quadrillion petaflops, or a million billion floating point operations per second, according to a standard benchmark used by industry.


To reach that speed, the $120 million hybrid vaulted over the previous frontrunner, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s BlueGene/L.


The Roadrunner also won praise as a highly efficient, energy-saving machine, running at twice the pace of the BlueGene/L with only a slight increment of power.


Demitri Kusnezov, a top computer research official at the National Nuclear Security Administration, called it “a monumental achievement”.


There were a few chuckles that went around about how the main computational acceleration comes from a souped-up version of IBM’s Cell processors used in the Sony Play Station 3.


In fact, the strategy of using off-the-shelf parts played a big part in cutting the system’s costs, but getting multiple technologies to work together was also something of a risk, lab officials have said, quickly adding that the results have vindicated the gamble.


And then, in November, proving its ascent was not a fluke, the Roadrunner held onto its primacy amid stiff competition. Despite some pre-match boasting by Oak Ridge’s Jaguar, and only a slight tweak from the Roadrunner’s previous configuration, the digital bird streaked to a second victory, assuring a first-place ranking for the full year until at least June 2009, when the next Top 500 list comes out.


The final score: Roadrunner, 1.105 petaflops; Jaguar, 1.059.


“It feels good to be number one, very good” said Andy White, the lab’s deputy associate director for theory, simulation and computation. “It’s been a very interesting, very challenging team effort.”


Attending SC08, the major high performance computing conference of the year in Austin, White said then, “We’d been out of the top spot for a long time.”


He said LANL had the fastest computer the first time the competition was awarded in 1993 but had been back in the pack since then.


Supercomputer performance has been on a steep trend, continued by Roadrunner, of a thousand-fold increase every 10 years, about ten times faster than the famous prediction codified in Moore’s Law.


The Roadrunner will make its nest in the lab’s Nicholas Metropolis Center supercomputer facility. Its main job will be in the classified realm of simulating nuclear weapons testing, but the lab also intends to purchase additional material for use in open science and technology projects.


Summing up the progress Roadrunner represents, IBM’s chief engineer on the Roadrunner told HPCwire’s editor Michael Feldman in June when the crown was bestowed, “A job that would take you about a week to run on Roadrunner would have taken you 20 years to run on a machine just 10 years ago.”