IBM has built a 512-node prototype of its Blue Gene L supercomputer that has been ranked 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 (two teraflops), is about the size of a 30in TV.

The Blue Gene L supercomputer, being built by IBM for Lawrence Livermore National Labs, 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 this performance out of such a small amount of real estate is the embedded PowerPC processor that IBM researchers have designed for the machine. Each Blue Gene 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 — such as 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 at Lawrence Livermore who is working on the project. "We have processor, memory and communications."

The 700MHz processors have peak power consumption on the order of 10 to 15 watts per node, said Dossa.

Blue Gene's heat management is further enhanced by a unique design that will give the supercomputer a tilted look, like a row of dominos simultaneously tiled 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.

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