Hitching a Ride with Roadrunner

The world's fastest computer, developed by IBM and Los Alamos National Labs, will be open for experimentation for six months. Beep! Beep!
Lawrence Livermore National Library

Once you've shattered the supercomputing speed barrier, what do you do for an encore? You train your sights on the next frontier of superfast high-powered computing, of course. At least, that's the plan for the engineers at IBM (IBM) and Los Alamos National Laboratories, who built Roadrunner, the world's fastest computer.

Unveiled this month, the $133 million Roadrunner is the first computer able to handle more than a quadrillion calculations in a second. Roadrunner, named after the speedy state bird of New Mexico, is more than twice as fast as the prior record holder, BlueGene, also developed by IBM.

Roadrunner was commissioned by the U.S. Energy Dept.'s National Nuclear Security Administration. Ultimately the machine will be closed off for classified research and used to ensure that the nation's nuclear stockpile remains usable.

Discovering the Secrets of El Niño

But for a six-month period, Roadrunner will be open to the scientific community to perform cutting-edge simulations. Los Alamos ran a competition to determine which projects would be best-suited to the abilities of Roadrunner, which is packed with versions of the Cell chip designed for Sony's (SNE) PlayStation 3, as well as Advanced Micro Devices' (AMD) dual-core Opteron chip.

For starters, researchers will use Roadrunner to simulate the strong magnetic forces generated by plasma, the ionized gas that makes up much of the solar atmosphere. Scientists will also harness Roadrunner's power to model oceanic heat exchange to advance understanding of such phenomena as El Niño, the warming of the ocean's surface that causes unusual weather patterns.

In the future, computers like Roadrunner could also be used in a wide range of tasks, from animation to medical imaging to financial risk management, says Dave Turek, vice-president of deep computing at IBM. The company is working to implement technology based on the Roadrunner system at Mizuho Securities in Japan, where it will be used in the derivatives trading system, and at the medical imaging center of the Mayo Clinic, which will use the capabilities to render medical images and diagnostics faster.

A Possible Role in Cloud Computing

Turek also envisions a scenario where supercomputers of Roadrunner's caliber are used in so-called cloud computing, where researchers can tap remotely, via the Internet, into the collective power of a grouping of computers. "What you want to do is infuse your cloud with the most resources," Turek says. "You can deploy these supercomputers in a cloud, and you can serve a particular community of users accordingly."

For a look at supercomputers over the decades, click through BusinessWeek.com's slide show.