IBM has built a 512-node prototype of its Blue Gene L supercomputer that 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 30in TV.
The Blue Gene L supercomputer, which is 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 build a computer capable of a petaflop, or one thousand trillion operations per second, about 25 times as fast as the most powerful computer, 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 Blue Gene chip contains dual floating-point processors, 4Mbytes 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 - disc drives or sound cards or microphone jacks - and require far less space and power than other computers.
The 700MHz processors have a peak power consumption of around 10 to 15 watts per node, said Don Dossa, a computational physicist with Lawrence Livermore who is working on the project.
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 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.
When Blue Gene L finally ships to Lawrence Livermore's Terascale Simulation Facility building next year, 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.
Blue Gene L, which will deliver between 180 teraflops and 360 teraflops, will cost between $50m and $100m to complete, or about $200,000 per teraflop, Seager said.
Lawrence Livermore's ASCI Purple supercomputer, by comparison, will cost between $1m and $2m per teraflop, he said.
While Seager characterises Blue Gene L as a "high risk" attempt to build an affordable supercomputer, it is one that could help the lab's work on the Stockpile Stewardship programme. "At this point, we're confident that it will have an impact on the programme," he said.
Robert McMillan writes for IDG News Service