IBM has built a supercomputer the size of a television set based on PowerPC-driven microchip technology that will appear in gaming consoles next year.

The company claims the supercomputer can perform two trillion calculations per second and said the machine is a small-scale prototype of the Blue Gene/L supercomputer it is building for Lawrence Livermore National Labs.

The Blue Gene L supercomputer has been ranked as the 73rd most powerful computer in the world. The machine, which is capable of a peak performance of two trillion floating-point operations per second (teraflops), is about the size of a 30-inch TV. It will be the first major system to be built under IBM's Blue Gene research project, which was launched in 1999.

The project's goal is to ultimately build a computer capable of a petaflop, or one thousand trillion operations per second, about 25 times as fast as the most powerful computer today, the 41-teraflop Earth Simulator supercomputer.

The key to Blue Gene's ability to extract such performance out of such a small amount of real estate is the embedded PowerPC processor that IBM researchers have designed for the machine. Each chip contains dual floating-point processors, 4MB of L3 memory, and five network controllers.

"It's really this system-on-a-chip technology," said Bill Pulleyblank, the director of exploratory server systems for IBM research.

The system-on-a-chip approach means that Blue Gene's nodes do not contain the kind of features typically found in commodity systems – disk drives, sound cards or microphone jacks – and require far less space and power than other computers.

"You don't have a lot of extraneous stuff that you're trying to cool," said Don Dossa, a computational physicist with Lawrence Livermore who is working on the project. "We have processor, memory, and communications."

The 700MHz processors have a peak power consumption on the order of ten to 15 watts per node, said Dossa.

Air cooling

Blue Gene's heat management is further enhanced by a unique design that will give the supercomputer a tilted look, like a row of dominoes simultaneously tilted to one side. "The real secret is by using these low-power processors and by doing some careful engineering on it, we're able to air-cool the machine," said Pulleyblank. Because of these two elements, Blue Gene requires about one-tenth the cooling of a typical supercomputer, he explained.

When Blue Gene L finally ships to Lawrence Livermore's Terascale Simulation Facility building a year from now, the 65,000-node machine will take up 2,500 square feet, less than one-tenth the area of the Earth Simulator, according to Dossa.

Now that Blue Gene's hardware is working in prototype at IBM's Thomas J Watson Research Centre, the research team is turning its focus to developing the software tools that will allow applications to run across 65,000 processors at the same time.

"We have a number of challenges facing us in terms of usability," said Dossa "A lot of the software people know that their algorithms will not scale that way, so they have to rethink their algorithms," he said.

Lawrence Livermore scientists plan to use the supercomputer to perform extremely accurate calculations on the dynamics of fluids and molecules at the atomic level, as well as dislocation dynamics, or the study of how certain materials can actually be strengthened through defects.

Some of Blue Gene L's software will eventually be used as part of a larger application designed to simulate nuclear explosions under the US Government's Stockpile Stewardship program, said Mark Seager, Lawrence Livermore's principle investigator for ASCI (Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative) platforms. "Our strategy for Blue Gene, actually, is to focus on some of the key science aspects as separate entities, and then later factor that into the weapons code for the next generation machine," he said.

Seager's plans also depend on IBM's ability to build a working system that is 128 times larger than its current prototype.