Scientists unveiled the world's fastest supercomputer on Monday, a $100 million machine that for the first time has performed 1,000 trillion calculations per second in a sustained exercise.
The technology breakthrough was accomplished by engineers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory and IBM on a computer to be used primarily on nuclear weapons work, including simulating nuclear explosions.
The computer, named Roadrunner, is twice as fast as IBM's Blue Gene system, which itself is three times faster than any of the world's other supercomputers, according to IBM.
"The computer is a speed demon. It will allow us to solve tremendous problems," said Thomas D'Agostino, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees nuclear weapons research and maintains the warhead stockpile.
But officials said the computer also could have a wide range of other applications in civilian engineering, medicine and science, from developing biofuels and designing more fuel-efficient cars to finding drug therapies and providing services to the financial industry.
To put the computer's speed in perspective, it has roughly the computing power of 100,000 of today's most powerful laptops stacked 1.5 miles high, according to IBM. Or, if each of the world's 6 billion people worked on hand-held computers for 24 hours a day, it would take them 46 years to do what the Roadrunner computer can do in a single day.
The IBM and Los Alamos engineers worked six years on the computer technology.
Some elements of the Roadrunner can be traced back to popular video games, said David Turek, vice president of IBM's supercomputing programs. In some ways, he said, it's "a very souped-up Sony PlayStation 3."
"We took the basic chip design (of a PlayStation) and advanced its capability," said Turek.
But the Roadrunner supercomputer, named after the New Mexico state bird, is nothing like a video game.
The interconnecting system occupies 6,000 square feet with 57 miles of fiber optics and weighs 500,000 pounds. Although made from commercial parts, the computer consists of 6,948 dual-core computer chips and 12,960 cell engines, and it has 80 terabytes of memory housed in 288 connected refrigerator-sized racks.
The cost: $100 million.
Turek said the computer in a two-hour test on May 25 achieved a "petaflop" speed of sustained performance, something no other computer had ever done. It did so again in several real applications involving classified nuclear weapons work this past weekend.
A "flop" is an acronym meaning floating-point-operations per second. One petaflop is 1,000 trillion operations per second.
Scientists also said the computer represents still another breakthrough, particularly important in these days of expensive energy since it performs 376 million calculations for every watt of electricity used.
We have reached an era in which computing power comes through paralelism. But is it actually a progress? Puting many CPU cores working together offers extremely high performances in terms of petaflops, which is the goal in specific applications such as those announced for IBM's Roadrunner system. However, some years ago, someone expected that today's technology would be able to offer computating power through improved silicon and CPUs that would follow Moore's law - a law currently put aside by Intel and AMD with their press releases to emphasize in words like "energy efficiency" and multi-core implementations.