IBM to present the incredible shrinking supercomputer

IBM wants to shrink its Watson server to the size of a pizza box

By , IDG News Service |  Hardware

IBM researchers are pursuing an ambitious project to deliver supercomputers that can be held in the palm of your hand.

The company on Thursday will show a smartphone-size prototype microcomputer that integrates CPUs and circuitry typically spread out over large motherboards. IBM initially hopes to build a "datacenter in a box" holding a swarm of these computers, and research will pave the way for even smaller computers, said Ronald Luijten, an IBM researcher.

IBM wants to build a version of its Watson supercomputer the size of a pizza box, containing a series of such microcomputers. Watson made waves by winning a Jeopardy contest in 2011. The Watson server today is the size of three stacked pizza boxes.

"It's something we're targeting," Luijten said. "I absolutely do believe that we are reducing the size of computers."

The prototype microcomputers are being shown by IBM and ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, which are in the midst of a five-year project called Dome to develop technologies for the Square Kilometer Array, which researchers say will be the world's largest telescope when it goes live in 2024. The microcomputers are being considered for use in large servers for the SKA project.

IBM will also be showing work it has done to combine 128 computers -- which function like blades -- into an appliance-size server that it says can deliver the same level of performance as servers that are four to 10 times larger. The prototype server consumes just 55 to 60 watts of power, less than the larger servers.

The dense server has 1,536 cores and is capable of running 3,072 threads simultaneously. It has been tested with IBM's DB2 software. IBM can build up to 6TB of DRAM in the dense server, which could help performance of in-memory applications such as databases. Researchers also want to use the microcomputers in servers for analytics and cloud applications.

"I think this technology lends itself well to general purpose cloud computing," Luijten said.

Next year, IBM plans to show another version of the server that is equally as fast and draws just 30 to 35 watts of power.

Laptops, desktops and servers are shrinking as more components like graphics cores are integrated inside chips. Smartphones and tablets that have 64-bit processors can last days on one battery charge, but there is room to improve performance and reduce power consumption, Luijten said.

Many different chip architectures, power management and chip-level features are being tested by IBM researchers. The goal, Luijten said, is to reduce electricity bills and chip size while preserving performance. Data centers consume megawatts of power, and the sort of microcomputers that IBM is working on will help squeeze more performance out of servers.

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