Hengeveld: Specialized HPC: ASCI RED, Roadrunner, Touchstone Delta, and WOPR – Where are they now?

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In this special guest feature, Intel’s John Hengeveld ponders the fate of our most powerful supercomputers.

Watching a Hollywood film the other day about the world’s fastest computer got me wondering–what happens to these colossal machines when they reach their end of life? The movie I saw was called Wargames: The Dead Code. I will save you the trouble: the world is saved from the evil 2008 supercomputer RIPLEY when Joshua, an AI personality originally from the 1983 “WOPR” Supercomputer by a dam site (and yes, I spelled that correctly), is transferred to the hero’s Laptop by…email. My wife yelled it me to turn it off because it was awful. I told her I was researching my blog.

In the original Wargames movie, WOPR was specifically designed to run simulations of “global thermonuclear war” around the clock. It was programmed with heuristic learning algorithms (no doubt in LISP), which ultimately gained sentience and became Joshua. “Would you like to play a game?”

This got me to thinking. It took a lot of work, and years of research to get WOPR (or any other purpose built machine) to do its tasks. Do these systems wind up living a long and healthy life and smoothly transfer off their science to later systems, or do they wind up off by a dam site?

How have machines like Roadrunner, Touchstone Delta, ASCII Red, and others held up? Are they off by a dam site?

A good friend and Intel colleague of mine, Dr. Mark Neidengard, was once the operator of the CalTech Touchstone Delta system. For a time, this system was #1 in the world (1991) at 13GF on the 1993 top500 list shows it as #8. It was in service until 1998, when it was decommissioned. It was the prototype for Intel’s Paragon architecture. The total memory of this system and the total processing power is exceeded by almost all core i5 based laptops. This proves quite well that if Joshua ran on WOPR in 1983, it could probably run in your smartphone, let alone a Mac.

More recently, Sandia’s ASCI Red was designed by my colleague Dr. Wheat. The first Teraflop machine, it debuted #1 in 1998. Upgraded midlife to double its performance, it managed to run for 8 years before Moore’s law rendered it obsolete. As this link describes, it was programmable and usable to the end. It passed the “bang for the operating buck” limit, and work was transferred off to the next generation of supercomputers.

So, where will systems like Roadrunner wind up? Does architectural uniqueness limit utility or its life? How does the assurance of a future generation’s compatibility impact the life expectancy of such systems?

I’d love to hear from folks on the decommissioning of once proud and unique machines. How did the process of transitioning applications go? How long did the old machine have to hang around because a fork lift upgrade couldn’t work? Ideally, you should be able to drop in a new machine the hour minute and second the ROI for operations makes sense. If the SW transition isn’t that simple, it costs money and slows the development of science. Perhaps someday, the world will be saved by AI in my smart phone. The only way to lose is not to play… More on that next time.


  1. John,
    I should like to refine your statements about Intel ASCI Red a bit:

    – ASCI Red made the Teraflop/s barrier at the end of 1996 and debuted as #1 system in the TOP500 list in June 1997 with 1.1 Tflop/s Rmax (9th list) / not in 1998.

    – ASCI Red was retired from service at the end of 2005, after having been on 18 TOP500 lists over 8.5 years. It was the fastest computer on the TOP500 from June 1997 to June 2000 and was replaced as the #1 system on the November 2000 list by IBM’s ASCI White at LLNL. The final standing of ASCI Red in the TOP500 was #276 in the November 2005 list with 2.4 Tflop/s Rmax.

    Kind regards,
    Hans Meuer