Massive $208 million petascale computer gets green light

The 200,000 processor core system known as Blue Waters got the green light recently as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and its National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) said it has finalized the contract with IBM to build the world's first sustained petascale computational system.

Blue Waters is expected to deliver sustained performance of more than one petaflop on many real-world scientific and engineering applications. A petaflop equals about 1 quadrillion calculations per second. They will be coupled to more than a petabyte of memory and more than 10 petabytes of disk storage. All of that memory and storage will be globally addressable, meaning that processors will be able to share data from a single pool exceptionally quickly, researchers said.  Blue Waters, is supported by a $208 million grant from the National Science Foundation and will come online in 2011.

Blue Waters will be based on what researchers called PERCS (Productive, Easy-to-use, Reliable Computing System).  PERCs required research and development in new chip technology, interconnect technology, operating systems, compiler, and programming environments. It will run a large and varied set of commercial and technical high-performance computing applications, researchers said.

According to the NSF  the system may be used to study complex processes like the interaction of the Sun's coronal mass ejections with the Earth's magnetosphere and ionosphere; the formation and evolution of galaxies in the early universe; understanding the chains of reactions that occur with living cells; and the design of novel materials.

The NSF said that by 2010-2011, academic researchers will be able to access a mix of high-performance systems that: deliver sustained performance in the 10 teraflops to 2 petaflops range on a variety of science and engineering codes; are integrated into a national cyberinfrastructure environment; and are supported at national, regional and/or campus levels.

"Blue Waters will be an unrivaled national asset that will have a powerful impact on both science and society," said Thom Dunning NCSA director and a professor of chemistry at Illinois in a release. "Scientists around the country-simulating new medicines or materials, the weather, disease outbreaks, or complex engineered systems like power plants and aircraft-are poised to make discoveries that we can only begin to imagine."

Blue Waters will no doubt expend on IBM's supercomputing prowess. IBM's $100 million Roadrunner system installed at the Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory was officially named the most powerful and energy efficient supercomputer in the world in June.

Others too are building toward a petaflop generationNASA, Intel and SGI in May said they would team up to crank up the space agency's supercomputing power, making it up to 16 times more powerful than it is today. Specifically, NASA Ames, Intel and SGI will work together on a project called Pleiades to develop a system with a capacity of one Petaflops peak performance by 2009 and a system with a peak performance of 10 Petaflops by 2012.

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