An American military supercomputer, assembled from components originally designed for video game machines, has reached a long-sought-after computing milestone by processing more than 1.026 quadrillion calculations per second.
To put the performance of the machine in perspective, Thomas D'Agostino, the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said that if all six billion people on earth used hand calculators and performed calculations 24 hours a day and seven days a week, it would take them 46 years to do what the Roadrunner can in one day.
The machine is an unusual blend of chips used in consumer products and advanced parallel computing technologies. The lessons that computer scientists learn by making it calculate even faster are seen as essential to the future of both personal and mobile consumer computing.
The high-performance computing goal, known as a petaflop -- one thousand trillion calculations per second -- has long been viewed as a crucial milestone by military, technical and scientific organizations in the United States, as well as a growing group including Japan, China and the European Union. All view supercomputing technology as a symbol of national economic competitiveness.
By running programs that find a solution in hours or even less time -- compared with as long as three months on older generations of computers -- petaflop machines like Roadrunner have the potential to fundamentally alter science and engineering, supercomputer experts say. Researchers can ask questions and receive answers virtually interactively and can perform experiments that would previously have been impractical.
"This is equivalent to the four-minute mile of supercomputing," said Jack Dongarra, a computer scientist at the University of Tennessee who for several decades has tracked the performance of the fastest computers.
Each new supercomputing generation has brought scientists a step closer to faithfully simulating physical reality. It has also produced software and hardware technologies that have rapidly spilled out into the rest of the computer industry for consumer and business products.
Technology is flowing in the opposite direction as well. Consumer-oriented computing began dominating research and development spending on technology shortly after the cold war ended in the late 1980s, and that trend is evident in the design of the world's fastest computers.
The Roadrunner is based on a radical design that includes 12,960 chips that are an improved version of an IBM Cell microprocessor, a parallel processing chip originally created for Sony's PlayStation 3 video-game machine. The Sony chips are used as accelerators, or turbochargers, for portions of calculations.
The Roadrunner also includes a smaller number of more conventional Opteron processors, made by Advanced Micro Devices, which are already widely used in corporate servers.
"Roadrunner tells us about what will happen in the next decade," said Horst Simon, associate laboratory director for computer science at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "Technology is coming from the consumer electronics market and the innovation is happening first in terms of cellphones and embedded electronics."
The innovations flowing from this generation of high-speed computers will most likely result from the way computer scientists manage the complexity of the system's hardware.
Roadrunner, which consumes roughly three megawatts of power, or about the power required by a large suburban shopping center, requires three separate programming tools because it has three types of processors. Programmers have to figure out how to keep all of the 116,640 processor cores in the machine occupied simultaneously in order for it to run effectively.
"We've proved some skeptics wrong," said Michael Anastasio, a physicist who is director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. "This gives us a window into a whole new way of computing. We can look at phenomena we have never seen before."