Supercomputing has reached a new milestone with the announcement that IBM and Los Alamos National Labs have cracked the petaflop performance barrier.
For those who don’t speak in mops, bops, flops and no-ops, a petaflop is a measurement of performance that equates to performing one thousand trillion floating point calculations per second.
That’s a whole lot of math.
The new supercomputer, called Roadrunner, is built from commodity components including a reported 7000 standard, off-the-shelf AMD Opteron processors closely coupled to some 12,000 IBM Cell Processors.
That’s less than 20,000 commodity chips. Commodity, as in standard, widely available, non-exotic. You probably don’t have an Opteron in the computer you are using right now, but you almost certainly used one (or more likely a cluster of them) just moments ago when you asked Google, or Microsoft, or Yahoo to do a web-search for you.
As for the Cell Processor (or Cell Broadband Engine as it’s more formally known) you probably know some kid who has one of those. It’s the brains inside the Sony Playstation.
Roadrunner uses the 7,000 Opteron processors to do general-purpose grid processing, while the 12,000 Cell processors serve as specialized application accelerators.
That may sound like a lot of chips, but consider this: The previous king of supercomputers, the IBM Blue Gene, has approximately half the performance of Roadrunner but uses 212,992 processors, and presumably consumes way more power than Roadrunner.
To summarize: This is exciting news for accelerated computing. Cell Processors, GPUs and FPGAs are all proving their worth in a new, hybrid multiprocessing world. The question, of course, is how do you program these things?