Earlier today IBM announced the new BladeCenter QS22, a new blade server that incorporates the latest Cell processor, the PowerXCell 8i. While the new name might not exactly roll off your tongue, IBM has managed to address one of the Cell’s major technical shortcomings (at least for the HPC crowd), namely much better double precision floating point performance.
Big Blue claims the PowerXCell 8i achieves nearly 109 double precision (DP) gigaflops. That’s on par with the 102 DP gigaflops provided by AMD’s FireStream 9170 GPU and is five times the DP floating point performance of the older Cell generation that inhabits PlayStation3 consoles. Since the QS22 packs two new Cell processors together, each blade delivers 217 gigaflops, which means a BladeCenter chassis will provide a whopping 3 teraflops if fully populated with QS22s. Memory capacity has been pumped up considerably too, thanks to moving from Rambus to DDR2. Up to 16 GB per processor is now supported (versus 1 GB on the previous generation).
The QS22 hardware will end up in the third phase of the “Roadrunner” supercomputer installation at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Each compute node in the Roadrunner cluster is made up of two dual-core Opteron dual-core processors and four Cell processors. The final result will be a petaflop machine that is capable of some of the most advanced nuclear weapons simulation work done under the direction of the National Nuclear Security Administration.
For those of you not maintaining nuclear weapons (most of you I hope), the QS22 can also be applied to more mundane tasks. Because of the additional double precision performance and greatly expanded memory capacity, the QS22 blade is theoretically much better positioned for mainstream HPC duty than its QS21 progenitor. IBM is aiming the new blades at the usual HPC markets: digital content creation, electronic design automation, image and signal processing, financial analytics, scientific research, seismic processing, etc.
To get the software ecosystem in sync, IBM is also releasing a new software development kit (SDK) for the QS22 to ease code development and porting. I wouldn’t be surprised if RapidMind announced support for the new Cell hardware in short order. As with almost any new computational hardware, a decent software development platform will be crucial to its success. Time will tell if IBM has put together the right package to attract conventional HPC users. The QS22 will be available in early June, while the SDK is available now.