Competition heats up for world's fastest supercomputer

The Blue Gene/L is the world's fastest supercomputer.
The Blue Gene/L is the world's fastest supercomputer. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

WASHINGTON — In the next few weeks, engineers at Argonne National Laboratory, 25 miles outside Chicago, will install the first pieces of a machine that will have more than triple the speed of the world's fastest computer.

By next summer, it will be able to perform a quadrillion — that's 1,000 trillion or 1,000,000,000,000,000 — calculations per second. Its maker, IBM, says it would take a tower of laptop computers a mile and a half high to match its power.

This speed demon is called the Blue Gene/P. It's the successor to IBM'S Blue Gene/L, the current world champion. Blue Gene/L edged out a Japanese supercomputer, the Earth Simulator, for the top rank in 2004.

The latest machine in the Blue Gene series is "another step on the never-ending journey to apply more compute power to the problems at hand,'' said Dave Turek, IBM's vice president for supercomputing.

A supercomputer's blinding speed makes it possible to solve complex problems in science, engineering, the environment, industry, finance and national security from the atomic to the cosmic level, Turek said. It can model the activity of electrons in an atom, and simulate the birth and death of the universe.

The fastest supercomputers are made up of hundreds of thousands of small, relatively low-power microprocessors linked together. Each processor is assigned a small part of the overall task.

Blue Gene/P, for example, will have 884,736 processors. Each will have about the power of the Pentium III chip, which powered personal computers in the1990s. Together they can move mountains of data.

In comparison, Blue Gene/L has 131,072 processors and performs 280 trillion calculations per second.

A major difficulty, experts say, is the need for new software — the code that tells a computer system what to do — to manage and coordinate such a vast horde of processors chugging away at the same time.

"When it comes to parallel computing, software is in a state of chaos,'' said Timothy Mattson, a senior research scientist at Intel, the computer chip manufacturer based in Santa Clara, Calif. "The biggest problems are with the software, not the hardware. . . . We really don't know what we're going to do.''

To meet the challenge, some supercomputer designers are taking advantage of the software and hardware used in video games, which are noted for their superb graphics and real-time responsiveness.

Such a hybrid system, named Roadrunner, will be installed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico next year. Its main task will be to check on the safety and reliability of nuclear weapons.

France and Japan also are joining a race to achieve what computer scientists call "petaflop'' performance. "Peta-‘' is the scientific prefix for quadrillion, and "flop'' — shorthand for "floating point operations'' — is a standard benchmark of computer power.

As of now, the fastest supercomputers measure their speed in "teraflops,'' meaning trillions of calculations.

The Blue Gene/P machine at Argonne is supposed to reach one petaflop — 1 quadrillion sustained operations per second — in the middle of next year. It should have a peak speed of three petaflops by the end of next year.

Turek said IBM's goal was 10 petaflops by 2011 and 20 petaflops by 2017. The Japanese have announced their intent to reach 10 petaflops by 2012.

"There is currently a race to the petaflop,'' said Jack Dongarra, an expert at the Innovative Computing Laboratory at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Dongarra is part of an international group that keeps track of the Top500, a list of the fastest supercomputers in the world.

"The 10 petaflop system will be like the Hubble Space Telescope,'' Dongarra said. "In comparison, most of us use computers that are like binoculars.''

Over the horizon waits the next quantum leap in computing: "exaflop.'' "Exa-‘' stands for quintillion, 1,000 times faster than a petaflop.

"We're working on it already,'' IBM's Turek said. "We're on a path to a time when computers will be smarter than people.''

For a list of the world's fastest computers, go to