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Secret stash turns up computing artifact

Search for a vintage Roadrunner IBM PowerXCell 8i cell chip has finally come to an end
March 1, 2021
vintage Roadrunner IBM PowerXCell 8i cell chip

Los Alamos was a driving force in the development of scientific computing


A search for a vintage Roadrunner IBM PowerXCell 8i cell chip for the Bradbury’s supercomputing exhibit has finally come to an end.

A package from the IBM POWER Systems Performance office in Austin, Texas, arrived in Los Alamos in mid-December 2020. “A small Christmas present for you and the museum!” wrote Cornell Wright in an email to Dave Modl, a Lab employee who has a big hand in the exhibit upgrade.

Cornell, who lives a few miles from the Bradbury, is part of a technical expert team that’s updating the supercomputing exhibit, and he was instrumental in making this artifact delivery happen. He worked as a programmer at IBM from 1977 to 2010, including a stint on the Roadrunner program, and as a software engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory from 2010 to 2017.

The exhibit refresh team had tried to remove one of these chips from an old main board and “failed miserably” because there were no suitable tools available, Modl said. In a last-ditch effort, they turned to Cornell for help.

At Modl’s request, Cornell reached out to some of his past colleagues at IBM, and eventually a chip surfaced with the help of five IBM employees. “Next time you’re on-site can you check our secret stash and see if we have any of these hanging around,” one IBM manager suggested to another IBM employee, and “the stash” came through.

An exact vintage Roadrunner IBM PowerXCell 8i cell chip could not be found. But the Bradbury is thrilled all the same to have a Roadrunner IBM Cell/BE chip, a predecessor to the PowerXCell 8i.

What’s in a chip?

The Roadrunner was a collaboration between Los Alamos and IBM that broke performance records, said Nicholas Lewis, the author of this updated supercomputing exhibit.

“Roadrunner was not only the first to the petaflop (1 million billion floating-point operations per second), but it also inaugurated the era of ‘hybrid’ architectures, the design innovation that provided a viable path to exascale computing,” he said.

In the Bradbury exhibit, the vintage Roadrunner IBM Cell/BE chip will be placed underneath a magnifying glass. The Roadrunner supercomputer was installed in 2008 at Los Alamos and decommissioned in 2013. This is a 65-nanometer version of the cell that went into the QS22 server.

This special chip is the accelerator that made Roadrunner powerful and energy efficient.

Few technologies change as quickly as supercomputing

With a contributing grant from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Foundation and the IEEE Life Members Fund, the Bradbury is updating its supercomputing exhibit to keep pace with the Lab’s many accomplishments in the computing field. Once the museum is allowed to reopen (no firm date yet), the exhibit will be ready to immerse visitors in the Lab’s long history of computing.

Rare artifacts in the Bradbury’s exhibit — such as an iconic Cray-1, portions of the ENIAC and MANIAC vacuum-tube computers, and a triblade from the record-breaking Roadrunner supercomputer — connect visitors to the origins and history of supercomputing, and illuminate how scientific-computing technologies have evolved over the last seven decades.

This exhibit was last updated 10 years ago. In the proposal to seek funds for a refresh, the team wrote:

“Supercomputers have been critical R&D tools in science and engineering for decades, but their importance to our society — for everything from understanding climate change, to developing smart electrical grids, to engineering safer and more efficient cars — remains largely unrecognized outside expert circles. This project instills visitors with an appreciation of what supercomputers are, how they are used and why they are essential in our daily lives.”