IBM to present the incredible shrinking supercomputer

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

IBM's shrinking computer

IBM's shrinking computer

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.

"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 world has learned how to divide and conquer with parallel computing," 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.

IBM is aiming to further shrink computers through the integration of power, logic, memory and storage controllers. The company's researchers are also considering a number of chip architectures, like ARM, for use in future chips.

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.

Luijten declined to comment on the possible impact of the Iatest microcomputer research on IBM's long-term business, but said component integration could help the company explore new types of servers.

"What we must do is contract computers to the smallest volumes possible."

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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