IBM shows world's fastest supercomputer

For years the world's biggest computer manufacturers have been locked in a race to see who can build the most powerful machine - regularly trading places with each other as they develop faster and more impressive systems.

But IBM today smashed the existing record as it unveiled the world's fastest supercomputer, a machine that is almost 20 times more powerful than the previous record holder.

The new system, dubbed Sequoia, will be able to achieve speeds of up to 20 Petaflops - 20 quadrillion calculations per second - the equivalent of more than 2m laptops.

Sequoia will consist of around 1.6m computer chips, giving it the ability to perform an order of magnitude faster than the 1.1 Petaflop Blue Gene/L computer, which is currently recognised as the world's most powerful.

It is being built by IBM for the US department of energy and should be installed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California by 2012. The LLNC is one of the world's leading laboratories dedicated to national security, where teams of scientists work on projects linked to nuclear energy, environmental protection and economic issues.

Sequoia will be used to simulate nuclear tests and explosions, alongside a smaller machine, known as Dawn, which is currently being built.

"Both systems will be used for the ongoing safety and reliability of our nation's nuclear stockpile," IBM spokesman Ron Favali said. "Sequoia is the big one."

Supercomputer speeds are advancing rapidly as manufacturers latch on to new techniques and cheaper prices for computer chips. The first machine to break the teraflop barrier - a trillion calculations per second - was only built in 1996.

Two years ago a $59m machine from Sun Microsystems, called Constellation, attempted to take the crown of world's fastest with operating speeds of 421 teraflops, or 421tn calculations per second. Just two years later, Sequoia could be able to achieve nearly 50 times the computing power.

Costs remain high, but the latest generation of supercomputers are more powerful and less expensive than at any point in history.

"We were just talking about teraflops and the fact we just broke the petaflop barrier is pretty amazing," said Favali. "The next speed is 'exaflop' - 10 to the 18th power."

The move comes less than a week after IBM announced that it is laying off almost 3,000 employees worldwide.

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