IBM's Got Serious Game

IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) reported last week that it won the bid to supply the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration with its latest supercomputer. It will begin installing the first phase of the machine, nicknamed Roadrunner, this October. When it's fully operational in 2008, Roadrunner will be four times more powerful than the world's fastest computer, able to perform 1 quadrillion operations per second.

If, like me, you have a hard time grasping the power of 1 quadrillion operations -- 1 petaflop, in geek-speak -- consider that the number is a one followed by 15 zeros. If that still does nothing for you, wrap your mind around this: If you were to use a calculator, it would take you 800 million years to do what Roadrunner can do in one second. Kind of humbling, isn't it?

The supercomputer uniquely combines the power of IBM's Cell Broadband Engine processors -- developed for video game consoles such as the upcoming Sony PlayStation3 -- with the general computing prowess of Advanced Micro Devices' (Nasdaq: AMD  ) Opteron chips.

Sophisticated software assigns the Cell chips to intense number-crunching tasks, while the Opteron chips are delegated to more general computing chores. This division of labor -- and the more than 16,000 Cell chips and 16,000 Opteron chips Roadrunner employs -- enable the computer's super-speedy performance.

Although the supercomputer's name is Roadrunner, and it uses chips designed for the gaming industry, its initial task will be no game -- it'll be simulating nuclear explosions. However, because the machine is built from commercially available hardware and is based on Linux software, the cost of building and maintaining the supercomputer will inevitably drop over time. As it does, a variety of new and more business-friendly applications will emerge.

For instance, financial services companies such as Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) will be able to employ Roadrunner's heirs to predict stock market trends; ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) and other oil and gas companies will use the technology to model techniques for extracting oil; and the pharmaceutical industry will likely tap into its immense power to decipher the human genome and develop new drug candidates.

As a second benefit for IBM, its Global Services consulting unit will be able to help these customers figure out how to harness the power of comparable supercomputers, while assisting clients in interpreting the reams of information that these monsters will churn out.

Lastly, because the chips were originally designed for intense graphics and real-time responsiveness, IBM can apply the lessons its engineers learn from this $35 million-$100 million venture toward improving next-generation chips. I can envision plenty of subsequent benefits for the entertainment and medical-imaging industries.

From my perspective, IBM's ability to repurpose a chip designed for high-end video games to instead simulate nuclear war games suggests that Big Blue still has some "serious game." That's why I remain bullish on the company as a long-term investment.

Interested in other Foolishness about IBM? Check out these articles:

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Fool contributor Jack Uldrich is comfortable in flip-flops, but he's still adjusting to petaflops. He owns stock in IBM. The Fool has a chip-proof disclosure policy.


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