Beep, beep! Roadrunner supercomputer laps the field

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By Roger Snodgrass

A supercomputer under development by Los Alamos National Laboratory and IBM in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. has zoomed past the petaflop speed barrier. Measuring sustained and peak speeds higher than a quadrillion calculations, a thousand trillion operations-per-second, the high-performance Roadrunner has opened a new dimension of computing.

Still in its shakeout phase, the supercomputer has also demonstrated petaflop capabilities on actual programs used by the laboratory and has shown itself to be one of the most energy efficient supercomputers in existence, according to top officials in the National Nuclear Security Administration, IBM and LANL.

The speed record of 1.026 petaflops was measured using the Linpack benchmark, a standard test for measuring a computer’s performance in “solving a dense system of linear equations.” Linpack is used in ranking the “Top 500” supercomputers and was developed by Jack Dongarra, who was one of the independent evaluators of Roadrunner’s recent feat.

The petaflop mark was broken on May 26, just in time to be recognized next week at the International Supercomputing Conference in Dresden, Germany.

Currently, the fastest machine is the BlueGene/L, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which has topped the list since November 2004, with a recent Linpack benchmark rating of 478.2 teraflops, slightly less than half the speed of the Roadrunner.

In a day of jubilation and congratulation among participants Monday, Department of Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman called the breakthrough an “enormous achievement,” in a press release.

NNSA Administrator Tom D’Agostino said the computer design would be useful in a new certification program for replacement nuclear warheads.

“We want to make sure they don’t degrade performance or make weapons less safe,” he said. “This is absolutely vital not just for the warhead but for stockpile performance itself.”

Beyond its primary dedicated use as a classified computer for the nuclear weapons programs, LANL Director Michael Anastasio said the computer would be used at first for a broader range of scientific problems.

“For the first six months we’ll be shaking it out by using unclassified calculations,” he said. Among the research topics he mentioned were HIV research, cellulosic fiber for biofuels and understanding dark matter, and dark energy in the universe.

Terry Wallace, who heads the laboratory’s science directorate, said the world’s fastest computer would also enable climate researchers to resolve climate change models faster and at a sharper scale.

“Shockingly, it is changing the physics,” he said. “We’re getting different answers now.”

The laboratory held a competition for proposals and received 50 ideas.

“I’ve got eight of them funded and ready to go,” Wallace said.

Andy White, who leads the lab’s Roadrunner program, said the LANL teams working in Poughkeepsie were enjoying it “immensely,”

“We’re now two weeks into the petaflop era,” he said, recalling that the teraflop era (a trillion operations per second) had started the day after Christmas in 1997.

Wallace said he thought the Roadrunner record might hold up for as much as a year.

Computer geeks are already looking ahead to the next threshold, the exoflop, which would perform one quintillion calculations per second, another 1,000 times as fast.

In a press release Monday, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. called the Roadrunner, “the fastest earmark in the world,” a reference to his patronage of the project, going back to FY2007, when he secured $35 million to get the project off ground and another $14.6 million the next year.

Rep. Tom Udall also praised the accomplishment in a press release.

“I hope that the Roadrunner program will be the beginning of an expanded role and a bright future for LANL,” he said.

The Roadrunner is expected to arrive for installation in Los Alamos in July.