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Fri, Sep 08, 2006 - Page 10 News List

IBM to use `Cell' processors in its new supercomputer

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SAN FRANCISCO

The US Energy Department said on Wednesday that it had awarded IBM a contract to build a supercomputer capable of 1,000 trillion calculations a second, using an array of 16,000 Cell processor chips that IBM originally designed for the coming PlayStation 3 video game machine.

The initial phase of the contract will be for US$35 million. There will be two more construction phases through the completion and installation of the system in 2008. The total cost is expected to be US$110 million.

The choice of the Cell chip, which was initially designed with Sony and Toshiba for video game and animation applications, is indicative of how much the computer industry has been transformed in the last decade -- it is now being driven largely by technologies originally intended for home and consumer applications.

The supercomputer, called Roadrunner, will be installed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and it is intended to safeguard and sustain the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile. The contract is one of several initiatives in response to Japan's plans to build computers intended to break the so-called petaflop supercomputer barrier of 1,000 trillion calculations a second.

The Los Alamos system is one of five efforts in the US to reach petaflop status by 2010.

The Roadrunner will use the Sony Cell Broadband Engine as a specialized processor, with a corresponding array of Advanced Micro Devices Opteron microprocessors. This kind of hybrid design is increasingly being used as designers scramble to reach ever-greater computing speeds.

"It's like adding a turbo to a car engine," said Steven Wallach, a supercomputer designer who is a consultant at Los Alamos. "Hybrid computing will become a standard way of enhancing the performance of off-the-shelf processors."

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