IBM's 'neurosynaptic chip' to power nuke-watching exascale rig

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory gets its hands on 64,000 cores and 80 BEEELLION transistors

IBM TrueNorth system for LLNL
Sixteen chips, a steal at US$1 MEELION: Lawrence Livermore National Lab's TrueNorth system from IBM

IBM's TrueNorth platform will form the basis of a collaboration with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) to chase the exascale dream.

The “neurosynaptic chip” Big Blue – or perhaps, given its much-hyped “brain-inspired” design, we should say “Big Grey”? – will “process the equivalent of 16 million neurons and 4 billion synapses” while consuming just 2.5 watts, Lawrence Livermore's media release says.

In among a bunch of “left brain/right brain” pseudoscience, IBM provides some hard numbers for TrueNorth: a neurosynaptic core made by tiling 4,096 cores on an on-chip network, providing “one million neurons and 256 million synapses”. The huge number of “synapses” also means the chip can continue operating if one or more cores fail.

LLNL has taken delivery of a system using 16 TrueNorth devices. Each processor has 5.4 billion transistors wired to create its sixteen-million-neuron array, and each chip uses 70 milliwatts (meaning about half the 2.5 W of the complete system is in overhead power).

TrueNorth is also fearsomely expensive at this stage: the total contract is US$1 million, or the equivalent of $62,500 per chip.

That's not quite a fair assessment though, since IBM is also going to deliver a simulator, a programming language and integrated programming environment, a library of algorithms and applications, firmware, neural network composition tools, a teaching curriculum, and a cloud service.

The system will support LLNL's work for America's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), such as cybersecurity and nonproliferation work. The NNSA is keen on machine learning, “deep learning algorithms”, and will also look at the feasibility of TrueNorth as a general computing platform.

In this article, IBM notes that the neurosynaptic cores are “event-driven”, meaning both the cores and the on-chip network operate without clocking.

That, IBM says, is the key to the low power consumption in TrueNorth, because the chip only operates on-demand rather than ticking over to the beat of a clock, even when there's nothing to do. ®

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