I wrote a short piece on ZDnet about Los Alamos National Labs new Cell Broadband Engine based supercomputer, Roadrunner. With ~14k v.3 Cell processors – an earlier version powers the PS3 game console – and another ~7k dual core Opterons, the Roadrunner’s ~3,250 compute nodes pack a lot of compute cycles.

The key compute element is the new version of the PS3 chip – called a PowerXCell 8i Processor – features 8x faster double-precision floating point and over 25 GB/sec of memory bandwidth. And it can address 64 GB RAM. There are 4 8i’s per compute node.

Nothing I read mentioned the disk storage – until the friendly Panasas PR person suggested I talk to Larry Jones, VP Product Marketing. Panasas is providing the back end storage for Roadrunner.

I did, and here’s what I learned.

LANL storage infrastructure
LANL’s 6 supercomputers + Roadrunner share the Panasas storage through LANL-developed IO nodes. While Roadrunner itself uses dual-data-rate 4x Infiniband for internode communication, the I/O nodes attach to Panasas through trunked GigE.

The advantage of the I/O nodes is that the entire Panasas storage pool is available to each supercomputer. Lots of bandwidth.

Roadrunner currently has about 80TB of RAM, roughly 24 GB per compute node. That works out to about 4 GB RAM per processor.

The jobs these machines run are huge. A simulation can run 6 months or more. Depending on criticality a job gets checkpointed every hour or maybe once a day.

The Panasas installation at LANL, begun in 2003, is currently 2 PB. Assuming an average of 500 GB drives, that means 4,000 disk drives.

Panasas uses 5 trunked GigE links to each of the 8 controllers in a single rack. They are now in beta for 10 GigE, which reduce link count from 40 to 8 per rack while doubling bandwidth.

The hot rodders at LANL should like that.

The StorageMojo take
Roadrunner’s 80 TB RAM is a sizable storage infrastructure in its own right. Keeping it fed and backed up is a major job.

Consumerization of IT is a common concept – but what we see here is the consumerization of HPC: Playstation CPUs; SATA drives; Linux OS; air cooling. The old model of highly customized kit for HPC is dead.

Which is a good thing for the rest of us. We get some of the smartest people in computing working on platforms that we might also use, developing applications that otherwise would never be available to the consumer market.

I’ll never run molecular dynamics codes, but maybe my kids will. After all, I can now edit feature length movies on my desktop. Who would have believed that just 20 years ago?

Comments welcome, of course. Disclosure: I did some work for Panasas last year and – who knows? – might do some more in the future. I like the team and the way they are pushing pNFS.