IBM has outdone itself again by creating (again) the world’s fastest supercomputer!
Normally this would deserve page 2 or 3, but in Bob’s world this warrants page 1 (above the fold) because it is the first computer to enter the long sought after realm of PetaScale computing. It is capable of 1.026 PetaFlops which means it can do more than 1 quadrillion (thousand trillion) calculations per second. Your speedy desktop computer is an abacus by comparison with maybe 5 to 10 billion. You may see the term FLOPS a lot in this context. This stands for FLoating Point Operations Per Second which, as you probably guessed, is roughly equivalent to how many instructions per second it can carry out.
It is called Roadrunner and was developed by the Department of Energy–slash–US Military’s Los Alamos National Laboratory and specialists from IBM. I don’t care much for that name of this supercomputer though. I’d like to officially suggest:
The Great Hyperlobic Omni-Cognate Electron Wrangler
Just a thought.
The standard test that is done to determine supercomputer speed is called the Linpack benchmark. It consists of solving linear equations involving about 2 million equations and the same number of unknowns. The test was carried out at IBM’s Poughkeepsie plant in New York. That’s under an hour away from me. I wish I knew that earlier. We could have planned a heist. Maybe I’d be able to actually play that new Conan game without any lag if I had petaflops to work with.
To be fair, some researchers claim to have already achieved this level of performance but their machines are so specialized that they can’t run the benchmark software.
Anywho…the architecture is pretty impressive.
It breaks the recent trend of adding more and more distinct processors. The now third place supercomputer has 65,000 processors and 2nd place has almost a quarter million. Roadrunner has just 20,000.
7,000 of them are comparatively ordinary Opteron processors from AMD (Advanced Micro Devices) which are used in many corporate servers. The remaining 13,000 (with 8 cores each) are upgraded versions of IBM’s Cell chips used in Sony’s Playstation 3 video game console. I believe this Hybrid technique is a first.
Roadrunner is financially and physically intimidating as well. For 133 million dollars you get 288 refrigerator-sized cases and that needs 3 megawatts to run. This is comparable to the power used by a large suburban shopping center.
Now it’s time to address the inevitable “Big Deal” response I get from time to time.
This is a big deal. This level of computing is not just the odometer effect like your car hitting 100,000 miles or going from the year 1999 to 2000. PetaScale computing has the potential to fundamentally alter science and engineering.
According to John Morrison, leader of the high-performance computing division at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico, where it will be installed:
“Roadrunner will enable us to tackle problems we couldn’t tackle before, we’ll be able to run a different level of problems…to do calculations that we wouldn’t even consider before.”
“We’ve proved some skeptics wrong,” says Michael Anastasio, director of the Los Alamos lab. “This gives us a window into a whole new way of computing. We can look at phenomena we have never seen before.”
For a real-world example of how this could help, consider medical imaging. Analyzing a CT-Scan is one of the most powerful diagnostic tools available today but it is computer intensive. Currently at 50 trillion FLOPS, it can take up to two hours to analyze a single CT scan. At a Petaflop, we could do that in real time.
So what’s the next big hurdle in terms of raw speed? The next order of magnitude milestone will be the exaflop computer. This will be able to crunch 1 quintillion calculations per second (a million trillion). Maybe when this happens people will finally know why I have “exabyte” in one of my email addresses
Like the petaflop, the exaflop will give us unprecedented resolution for simulating reality.
Take Genomics Research for example. In order to model a cell’s metabolic and signaling network, it would take 6 days on a machine like Roadrunner. An Exaflop based computer should be able do it in close to real time. It may be a while though before I blog about IBM’s first exaflop computer. 2019 is the best guess at this point.
Wanna take another 3 orders of magnitude step? What about the Zettaflop? This 10 to the 21 operations per second or 1 sextillion. What a great number that is. Definitely in the top five for me along with 13, 0, 666, and Grahams Number (look it up).
What might this accomplish? It’s hard to say what layers of reality this level of computing might reveal but NASA theorizes it could accomplish “full weather modeling” (whatever that really means) which could cover a two week period with incredible accuracy. My guess is it could predict the weather two weeks in the future with the accuracy we expect now from a two-day forecast. This might not happen until 2030 or so.
How far can we go? What are the physical limits to computing as we understand them?
10 to the 51 operations per second has been calculated as the upper limit. Those pesky Quantum rules won’t let numbers be crunched any faster, apparently. The designation for that speed is not sexy like petaflop or exaflop is. Unfortunately it might be called a Pepta-PP-Flop supercomputer. Doesn’t roll off the tongue, does it? Maybe by the time that computer arrives, someone will remember this post and call it The Great Hyperlobic Omni-Cognate Electron Wrangler.