IBM Readies Monster Supercomputer

IBM is to build a hugely powerful supercomputer capable of performing at 20 petaflops per second, twenty times faster than the current record holder, namely the 1 petaflop Roadrunner machine it delivered back in June to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

IBM has been contracted by the US government to build the machine, dubbed Sequoia, and is still developing the technology needed. It has also been asked to build a smaller computer called Dawn. Both machines will be constructed at its Blue Gene facilities in Rochester, Minnesota.

According to Big Blue, Sequoia will have the power of 2 million laptops. Its closest rival, the world's first petaflop machine, Roadrunner, can only perform at speeds equivalent to 100,000 laptops combined.

Understandably, a machine of this nature will occupy a lot room, namely 3,422 square feet (or 318 square metres). That is roughly the size of a large house, and although IBM claims it will be highly energy-efficient for the job it does, machines of this nature consume tremendous amounts of electricity and it is expected to occupy 96 refrigerator-sized racks.

Inside the beast itself, Sequoia is expected to contain more than 1.6 million processors, thought to be IBM Power chips. The system is also reportedly to have 1.6TB of memory and will run Linux. The open source operating system commands approximately 85 percent market share in the high performance computing field. Windows meanwhile is relegated to less than five percent market share, according to industry estimates.

The smaller machine, Dawn, is expected to be a 500-teraflop computer. A teraflop equals a trillion floating points a second; a petaflop meanwhile is 1,000 trillion (one quadrillion) sustained floating-point operations per second.

Sequoia will be used for simulating nuclear tests by the US Department of Energy at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Supercomputers are necessary for this task, as it allows scientists judge the safety and reliability of the US nuclear weapons stockpile without doing live tests.

That said, Sequoia should have peacetime applications as well, namely weather forecasting or oil exploration. And the ability to conduct multi-scale science simulations would also allow, say, the pharmaceutical industry to simulate the effect of drugs on the human body, or by Wall Street to simulate the impact of events on the stock market.

IBM has a rich history in the supercomputer sector, and has been building supercomputers for more than 50 years now. It dominates the Top 500 supercomputer rankings, and Big Blue believes that the 20-petaflop computing power of Sequoia will be so powerful, it will exceed the combined systems of every machine on the Top 500.

The Sequoia machine is slated for delivery sometime in 2011.

IBM did not reveal what it would cost, although one can safely assume that if you need to know the price, you almost certainly couldn't afford it.

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