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IBM and AMD feed on Los Alamos' ample supercomputing pork

Opteron and Cell fuel 'Roadrunner'

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Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) will turn to both AMD's Opteron chip and IBM's Cell in an effort to breath new life into its supercomputing program.

Companies have been bidding for months, hoping to win LANL's "Roadrunner" supercomputer contract. The system, which will be built over the next year, should end up as one of the fastest - if not the fastest - machine on the planet. And it now looks like IBM will take the majority of the bragging rights for constructing the monster.

The lab will announce that IBM will build Roadrunner using a hybrid design that makes use of Opteron and Cell systems, according to a report from online rag CNET. The publication cites "sources familiar with the machine" as claiming that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which oversees LANL, will reveal IBM's win "in the coming days."

LANL's supercomputing fortunes have suffered in recent years as the lab has fallen behind peers such as Lawrence Livermore lab in the race to build the latest and greatest systems. The lab, based in New Mexico, has struggled to complete some of its major supercomputing efforts and has lost a number of its top computer scientists.

With Roadrunner, however, LANL hopes to reclaim its position as a cutting-edge facility. The system would be one of the first to kick off the petaflop era in supercomptuing.

"It is expected to run scientific calculations of highly complex phenomena that are 10 times as detailed as any existing computer," LANL said back in May. "It also will establish Los Alamos as the leading contender to win the worldwide race to have the first supercomputer able to run at a sustained performance level of 1 petaflop, or a billion million computations per second."

The use of the Opteron and Cell chips would mark an interesting mix for a supercomputer. Both chips are part of the volume processor market, meaning they should help lower the overall cost of Roadrunner (expected at close to $100m) when compared to supercomputers that run on more specialized chips. In addition, LANL should be able to use the speedy Opteron chips to boost the raw performance of the Roadrunner system, while turning to the Cell chips (found in gaming consoles) to handle demanding floating point and graphics- heavy computing elements.

IBM happens to be the only Tier 1 vendor with a huge stake in both the Opteron and Cell camps. It now sells a wide range of Opteron-based servers and also teamed with Toshiba and Sony for the design of the Cell chip. You could expect that IBM could slot both Opteron- and Cell-based blade servers into the same chassis and present this combo system as a big part of the Roadrunner design.

IBM takes great pride in sitting atop the supercomputing world. The company spends millions upon millions on bids and designs for potential clients and often cuts customers price breaks on the large supercomputers. Big Blue, which built the current top supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore, uses its strength in the high performance computing realm as a strong marketing tool for its business computer line.

The LANL system should also provide a nice marketing boost for AMD, which now faces renewed competition from Intel. ®

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