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Video game technology speeds supercomputers

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By The Staff

Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are working on new numerical simulations that make use of the ultra-fast next generation of high-performance computers.Lab researchers Brian Albright and Kevin Bowers say a big leap in computing power can be attributed to a technology that is out of stock in a lot of stores already this shopping season – video games.Saving the galaxy, winning the damsel and gunning down monsters have nothing on modeling tough problems in plasma physics. But traditional programming was unable to keep up with the power of the latest microprocessors, Albright said in an announcement by the laboratory.Last week Bower presented a paper at the American Physical Society’s Division of Plasma Physics in Orlando, Florida.“Several years ago, a computer code called VPIC was developed at Los Alamos to model plasma physics in a way that takes advantage of these optimized microprocessors and recently was adapted to run on the next iteration of the Roadrunner, the newest computer under development by IBM and Los Alamos,” Bowers said in the announcement.“The VPIC code is used to do ‘first principles’ simulations, attempting to model the laws of physics with very few assumptions, giving insight to phenomena difficult to recreate in the lab or understand with more approximate theories,” according to the abstract of the talk. “VPIC represents plasma as a large number of particles ‘pushed’ by electric and magnetic fields, which are affected by the electrical currents generated by the particles.”The presentation titled, “The Speed of light is too slow,” said the VPIC program makes up for physical limitations such as moving electrons around the computer chips.Video-game technology is at the core of the third phase of LANL’s supercomputer known as Roadrunner, a hybrid system that is expected to use 13,000 IBM Cell eDP microprocessors from the same family of microprocessors used in the Sony PlayStation 3.In the world of supercomputers, Lawrence Livermore’s Blue Gene/L was ranked fastest for the fourth year in a row by the ‘Top 500” released Monday at the Supercomputer Conference in Reno, Nev.IBM announced that Blue Gene/L was now nearly three-times faster than the nearest rival, with 478 trillion calculations per second versus a European version of the same computer known as Blue Gene/P, with a speed of 167 teraflops.The next big thing will be breaking the “petaflop” barrier – a quadrillion calculations per second – which will be the goal of LANL’s next Roadrunner, due to arrive in the summer of 2008. That would be almost 15 times faster than the current Roadrunner, which clocks 70 teraflops.The petaflop speed, when it can be achieved, would enable previously impossible simulations in numerous areas of plasma physics, according to the Bower’s presentation.Or maybe not.Among anxious declarations about budget cuts this week, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., reiterated his contention that substantial cuts in the House appropriations bill for the Department of Energy and the weapons complex would jeopardize a number of current programs.He particularly criticized the elimination of funding in the House bill for the Roadrunner computer.