IBM’s Cell-based RoadRunner supercomputer is world’s fastest

A supercomputer based on the Cell processor that is found in Sony’s PlayStation 3 console has rocketed into the latest Top 500 supercomputing ranking at number one 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 one thousand 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 Wednesday 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, Toshiba 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 US$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 that 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, Blue Gene/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 Blue Gene/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 machine, owned by French oil company Total, benchmarked at 106 teraflops.

Looking through the list, IBM’s domination of the top 10 is repeated to give it 210 of the fastest 500 machines. Its closest competitor is Hewlett-Packard, which has 183 systems in the ranking.

Intel chips are now found in 75 percent of all the machines, an increase from 71 percent in the last ranking, as its quad-core processors gain popularity. More than half the machines in the list are based on such 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 televisions with a Cell Broadband Engine. The TV, which Toshiba said should be out by the end of next year, uses the Cell chip for realtime upscaling of standard-definition TV to high-def, and display 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 next year.

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