Record Setting Roadrunner Supercomputer Shuts Down for Good

Paul Lilly

Roadrunner won the race to 1 petaflop five years ago.

Even supercomputers sometimes have relatively short lifespans. So it is with Roadrunner, the first supercomputer to break the petaflop barrier by posting better than 1 million billion calculations per second five years ago. Back then, it was the world's fastest supercomputer, and scientists used it to gain a better understanding of energy flow in nuclear weapons and its relation to weapon yield.

Roadrunner also helped several general science categories, including research into nanowire material behavior, magnetic reconnection, laser backscatter, HIV phylogenetics, and a simulation of the universe at a 70-billion-particle scale. It was quite the machine, and still is when you look at its parts.

Classified as a hybrid supercomputer, Roadrunner used two different kinds of processors, which was unusual five years ago. It employed 6,563 dual-core AMD Opteron processors, with each core linked to a PowerXCell 8i graphics processor, essentially an enhanced version of the specialized processor originally designed for Sony's PlayStation 3 console.

"Roadrunner was a truly pioneering idea," said Gary Grider of the Los Alamos National Laboratory's High Performance Computing Division. "Roadrunner got everyone thinking in new ways about how to build and use a supercomputer. Specialized processors are being included in new ways on new systems, and being used in novel ways. Our demonstration with Roadrunner caused everyone to pay attention."

Alas, Roadrunner consumes 2,345 kilowatts of power at full tilt, so it's expensive to run. It's also no longer the fastest supercomputer on the planet, though it did rank No. 22 last year. Regardless, Roadrunner was decommissioned over the weekend and will ultimately be replaced by a $54 million machine that takes up less space and uses less energy.

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