U.S. Retakes Top Spot in Supercomputer Race

The United States has regained the crown of prestigious speed in computing with a powerful new supercomputer in Tennessee, a landmark for technology that plays a leading role in science, medicine and other fields.

Frontier, the name of the giant machine at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was on Monday declared the first in a set of standard tests used by researchers to rank a supercomputer to perform one quintillion operations per second – one billion billion calculations. Many years ago, the US Department of Energy pledged 1.8 billion to build three systems with “Exascale” operations, as scientists call it.

But the crown has a warning. Some experts believe that the Frontier has been defeated in the Exascale race by two systems in China. Operators of those systems have not submitted test results for evaluation by scientists who monitor the so-called top 500 rankings. Experts say they suspect the Chinese did not submit test results due to tensions between the United States and China.

“There are rumors that there is something in China,” said Jack Dongra, a distinguished professor of computer science at the University of Tennessee who helped lead the Top500 effort. “There is nothing official.”

Supercomputers have long been a flashpoint in international competition. Room-sized machines were previously designed to design cracking codes and weapons, but now they also play a key role in developing vaccines, testing car designs, and modeling climate change.

The region has been dominated by US technology for decades, but China has become a dominant power. The Sunway Taihulite system was ranked the fastest in the world between 2016 and 2018. There are 173 systems in China’s latest Top 500 list, compared to 126 machines in the United States.

Japan has been a small but still strong contender. In Kobe, a system called Fugaku no. 1 location in June 2020, displacing the IBM system at Oak Ridge.

Frontier returns that top position to the lab. The system, built by Hewlett-Packard Enterprise using two types of chips from advanced micro-devices, was twice as fast as Fugaku in the tests used by the top 500 organizations.

“This is a moment of pride for our nation,” said Thomas Zacharya, director of Oak Ridge, in an online briefing from an industry event in Germany. “It reminds us that we can still go after something bigger than we are.”

The construction of the system, consisting of 74 cabinets each weighing 8,000 pounds, was made more difficult by epidemics and problems finding components in the supply chain crisis, Mr. Zakaria said. But he predicted that Frontier would quickly make a big impact by studying the effect of covid and helping to transition to cleaner energy sources, for example.

Researchers from China were involved in the ranking process. But the country has adopted a lower profile to promote its supercomputer advances as the United States has taken a series of steps to slow down China’s technological advances – including making it harder for some Chinese companies to acquire foreign chips that can be used to build supercomputers. .

But China is making significant progress in designing its own microprocessor, which is the key to progress in supercomputers. David Kahner, a regional authority head who heads the Asian Technology Information Program, reported last year the details of two Excel-class supercomputers in which he said the Chinese chip uses technology.

A presentation by Mr. Kahaner shared at the technical conference. Another machine, the Tianhe-3, succeeds the Tianhe-1A system, which became the first Chinese machine to take the number in 2010. 1st place in the top 500 list.

Further evidence emerged that China had broken the Exxon barrier in November, when a group of 14 Chinese researchers won the prestigious Gordon Bell Prize from the Association for Computing Machinery for emulating a quantum computing circuit on a new Exxon-speed Sunway system. . The calculation, estimated to take 10,000 years on Oak Ridge’s fastest previous supercomputer, took 304 seconds on the Chinese system, the researchers reported in a technical paper.

“They kind of leaked that they have machines running at an excel scale,” said Steve Conway, an analyst at Hyperion Research. “There is a lot of speculation that they did not want to attract more US sanctions.”

Mr. Conway and other experts said they believe the chips in the new Chinese machines were made in Taiwan, which is true for the main chips at the Frontier. China lags far behind in its ability to build advanced chips, he said.

The Oak Ridge Machine, in addition to helping scientists, can help suppliers popularize some new products. Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, which bought the supercomputer Pioneer Crane in 2019, contributed to a networking technology called SlingShot that had a significant impact on Frontier’s performance. Zakaria said.

And AMD has contributed not only microprocessors but also a kind of graphics processing chip that has been sold primarily for supercomputers by rival Nvidia. The same two AMD chips were selected for an Exascale system called Al Capitan to be installed in 2023 at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

The third Exascale machine at Argon National Laboratory in Illinois, using Intel’s three types of chips, was originally scheduled for delivery in 2021. But production problems at Intel delayed that system, which is now expected later this year.

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