BlueGene is currently the world's fastest supercomputer
IBM is developing a next-generation supercomputer that will become the world's most powerful computer

IBM plans on building Roadrunner, a next-generation supercomputer that will be located at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.  The computer will have a performance level of 1 petaflop, which is the equivalent of 1,000 trillion calculations per second.  Roadrunner will use a conventional cluster of 16,000 AMD Opteron processor cores alongside 16,000 Cell B.E. chips, with both chips working together to handle a share of the calculating work.

The Department of Energy contacted IBM in September about the need of a next-generation supercomputer that is able to sustain a speed of at least one petaflop.  The computer will cost the Department of Energy $110 million over three years of development.  The Opteron and Cell chip combination should make attempts to lower the overall cost of building the supercomputer interesting.  According to IBM, the Cell B.E. processors will act as the workhorse, completing the major floating point calculations.  The AMD Opterons will act as the system interface processors and as the transactional backbones between the nodes.

Once completed, the Roadrunner will be the world's most powerful computer, easily outpowering the IBM BlueGene/L system, located at the DOE's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  The Blue Gene/L is able to sustain 280 teraflops, only a little more than one-fourth of the petaflop goal of the Roadrunner.

The U.S. DOE initially plans on using the system to handle "a broad spectrum of scientific and commercial applications."  The computer could eventually be used to help the DOE ensure that the nuclear weapons stockpile in the US remains safe and reliable.  Instead of conducting underground nuclear testing, Roadrunner could simulate how the nuclear weapons age.

Designers of the supercomputer are also taking space and power consumption issues into mind while designing the Roadrunner.  IBM has repeatedly said that the system will use advanced cooling and power management technologies to ensure that Roadrunner will be working as efficiently as possible.

The Roadrunner will cover 12,000 square feet of floor space when it is completed sometime in 2008.  IBM plans on shipping the supercomputer to the DOE facility sometime in the Q3 2007 -- it should be fully operational sometime in early 2008.

Hybrid supercomputers, much like the Tokyo Institute of Technology's Tusbame system from Sun Microsystems, show an increasing trend where general-purpose processors are used with special-purpose accelerator chips.  These hybrid supercomputers are able to utilize both Opteron blade servers and Cell-based accelerator systems in one chassis.

Supercomputers are traditionally used for calculations that need high levels of computing power, such as quantum mechanical physics, forecasting weather, mapping DNA and exploring space.  The beefed up computers are used by researchers for advanced simulations that continue to grow in complexity and sophistication.  There has been a recent push to not only make supercomputers more powerful but to also make them much more energy efficient.

More special-purpose supercomputers that have hardware architecture designed specifically to tackle a particular problem.  For example, the Deep Blue supercomputer was designed to give the world's best human chess players a new challenge; the Deep Crack supercomputer was designed for cracking the data encryption standard (DES); and the Gravity Pipe (GRAPE) supercomputer is used for molecular dynamics and astrophysics.

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