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Supercomputers in the palm of your hand
July 24, 2014, 1:31 pm
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IBM researchers are pursuing an ambitious project to deliver supercomputers that can be held in the palm of your hand. The company recently showcased 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. 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 (SKA), 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.

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.

"The fundamental challenge that big data centers will face from 2016 to 2020 time frame is power consumption," Luijten said. An effective way to run server applications is by breaking up the processing over many power-efficient cores, Luijten said.

The new prototype microcomputers are 133 millimeters by 55 millimeters, and IBM claims they have the same computing power as standard, 305 millimeter by 245 millimeters server motherboards. The microcomputers have 12-core T4240 CPUs based on the PowerPC architecture, which are mainly used in embedded devices.

Power distribution over chips is a big problem that needs to be resolved, Luijten said. About 98 percent of the energy at the chip and board levels are used to transmit data from point A to point B, Luijten said. Data is moved from the CPU through a number of channels before it reaches memory, storage or PCI-Express slots. "That's just eating up the board," Luijten said, adding that he is looking for ways to cut the distance between the CPU, Ethernet and other throughput interfaces.

Future iterations of the IBM prototype microcomputers could be critical for the company's struggling server business. IBM, which has put its homegrown Power8 chips on servers, announced earlier this year that it will sell the x86 side of its server business to Lenovo for $2.3 billion.
 

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