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US nuke boffins smash petaflop barrier with 'Roadrunner'

Cell/Opteron chimera supercomputer whups 44 mouse brains

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The US nuclear weapons programme has revealed a new supercomputer made from consumer processors, which has broken the petaflop barrier just about in line with projections. The machine, known as "Roadrunner", uses both Cell and Opteron based technology.

The New York Times reports this morning that Roadrunner - named in an allusion to the state bird of New Mexico, the computer's home - can crank 1.026 quadrillion (1.026x1015) floating-point operations per second. It was developed by the Los Alamos national laboratory, home of the nuclear bomb, in conjunction with specialists from IBM.

“We’ve proved some skeptics wrong,” said 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.”

Last year, the TOP500 supercomputer-watch project predicted that the first petaflop machine would come into service about halfway through 2008 - so Roadrunner has made its entrance pretty much on cue. The previous record holder was a half-petaflop IBM BlueGene/L job based at the Lawrence Livermore atom lab in California.

The nuke boffins want Roadrunner to carry out extremely complicated calculations involved in maintaining the US atomic weapons stockpile. America has lately avoided building any new nukes, and parts of its existing armoury are now ageing beyond the point where they would normally be withdrawn from service - or at least tested to see if they still worked. But there's a strong desire nowadays to avoid test explosions.

As an alternative, the atom brainboxes reckon that sufficiently advanced computing will be able to correctly simulate nukes' behaviour if triggered, allowing America's nuke force readiness to be validated without any messy live tests. That's where Roadrunner comes in.

However, before it gets taken over by classified weapons programmes, it seems that there will be opportunities for other kinds of science and engineering. The NYT says that the new supermachine will be used to check out new climate models - one of the toughest computing challenges.

The Roadrunner reportedly cost $133m, and requires 3 megawatts of power to run. Programming it is said to be no joke, requiring simultaneous use of three different tool sets to cover all of the mighty machine's 116,640 cores.

Various media-bite indications of the Roadrunner's puissance have already been offered. At Vulture Central, using the generally accepted standard of 23 teraflops to an adjusted mouse brain, we calculate that one Roadrunner is approximately as intelligent as 45 mice.®

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