Supercomputer outpowers 1.5-mile-high stack of laptops

IBM says it has nearly tripled the performance of the technology behind the world's fastest and most energy-efficient supercomputer, developing a system that is potentially 100,000 times more powerful than a home computer. It will be used by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science.

At a price of US$1.3 million, one Blue Gene/P supercomputing rack can perform 13.9 trillion operations per second and 350 million operations per watt. Announced Tuesday, Blue Gene/P is 75 percent more efficient than its predecessor -- Blue Gene/L -- and is targeted primarily at national laboratories and universities that make calculations so complex no other computer would be able to perform them, IBM officials say.

"There are customers out there who have problems that are so big, so complex that they don't have a substitute," says Herb Schultz, IBM's deep-computing marketing manager.

Each rack is about 2 meters tall and 1 meter wide. Later this year, the U.S. Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois will deploy a nine-rack system and the Max Planck Society in Germany will deploy a two-rack system, according to Schultz.

If a 72-rack system were deployed, which IBM expects to happen at some organizations, the Blue Gene/P would be 100,000 times more powerful than a home computer and process more operations in one second than a stack of laptop computers nearly 1.5 miles high, IBM says.

The Argonne laboratory will use the Blue Gene/P for large simulations involving astronomy, climate modeling and other research areas, while Max Planck's use will include high-energy physics.

The supercomputer "towers over other systems to the degree that it enables science and commercial supercomputing to attack vital problems in ways never before possible, like modeling an entire human organ to determine drug interactions," IBM says in a press release. "Drug researchers could run simulated clinical trials on 27 million patients in one afternoon using just a sliver of the machine's full power."

IBM designed and built its original Blue Gene/L supercomputer with help from the Department of Energy's NNSA/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The Livermore lab uses a 64-rack Blue Gene/L system, which is still the world's single fastest supercomputer by virtue of the sheer number of racks, according to Schultz.

IBM is expecting its latest supercomputer to appeal to research and development departments within large industrial organizations. The possible venues for Blue Gene/P include petroleum, life sciences and pharmaceutical companies. There is also interest in using the supercomputer to determine the best safety methods for nuclear power plants, according to Schultz.

Blue Gene/P improves system management, support for applications and makes the programming environment more similar to those found in commercial equipment, IBM says. The supercomputer's operating system is based on open source Linux.

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