IBM and Los Alamos National Laboratory have built the world's first petaflop machine, a supercomputer named Roadrunner designed to ensure the safety and reliability of the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile, IBM has announced.

A petaflop is equal to one thousand trillion calculations per second, and was a highly sought-after goal in the world of supercomputing. Scheduled for installation at Los Alamos in August, IBM says Roadrunner represents a breakthrough in hybrid computing, combining AMD microprocessors found in standard laptops and servers with the IBM Cell Broadband Engine chips that power Sony's PS3 gaming console.

Roadrunner "will produce the largest supercomputer ever at 1.5 petaflops, three times faster than the current largest system," IBM chief engineer Donald Grice says in a video on Big Blue's website. "It's a hybrid architecture that will allow science at a scale that's never been allowed before."

The world's current fastest system, the IBM Blue Gene computer at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, will be left in the dust by Roadrunner. After being loaded onto 21 tractor trailer trucks and shipped from New York to Los Alamos in New Mexico, Roadrunner will perform at speeds equivalent to 100,000 laptops combined. If every person in the world was armed with a handheld calculator and performed one calculation per second, it would take us 46 years to do everything Roadrunner can do in one day, according to IBM.

"For the first time, Roadrunner will be large enough to run some multi-scale science simulations," says John Morrison, leader of Los Alamos's high performance computing division. "These have been talked about for a number of years in the high-performance computing industry, but with Roadrunner we will have a machine that will be able to do this."

Roadrunner's main function is to run "complex nuclear weapons calculations" that let scientists judge the safety and reliability of the US nuclear weapons stockpile without doing live tests, IBM says. Such a computer could also be used by the pharmaceutical industry to simulate the effect of drugs on the human body, or by Wall Street to simulate the impact of events on the stock market.

Roadrunner cost about $100 million and combines 6,948 dual-core AMD Opteron chips and 12,960 Cell engines, all housed in IBM blade servers. Eighty terabytes of memory are kept in 288 "refrigerator-sized" racks occupying 6,000 square feet.

Roadrunner weights 500,000 pounds, and has 10,000 Infiniband and Gigabit Ethernet connections requiring 57 miles of fibre optic cable.

IBM built 3,456 "tri-blades," each consisting of two IBM QS22 blade servers using Cell engines and one LS21 blade server based on AMD chips.

"Standard processing (e.g. file system I/O) is handled by the Opteron processors [while] mathematically and CPU-intensive elements are directed to the Cell processors," IBM states in a press release. "Each tri-blade unit can run at 400 billion operations per second."

Roadrunner uses open source Linux software from Red Hat and is more efficient than most supercomputers, delivering 376 million calculations per watt, according to IBM. That should be enough to place Roadrunner among the most energy-efficient systems on the Green 500 list coming out later this month, IBM says.