Initiative Proposed To Build World’s Fastest Computer
Washington — President Obama has launched an ambitious technology initiative, a moonshot in the world of supercomputing that could help solve some of the world’s most complex problems.
The project, known as the National Strategic Computing Initiative, aims to speed up the development of an “exascale computing system” — a supercomputer that can process a billion billion operations per second. (That’s not a typo; there are two “billions” there.) It’s a system that is hard to fathom, but it could revolutionize the way scientists measure climate change, discover new materials and study the human brain.
“I think somewhere along the lines of a hundred million to a billion modern-day laptops would represent the early stages of exascale computing,” said Thomas Sterling, a professor at the University of Indiana’s School of Informatics and Computing and chief scientist at its Center for Research in Extreme Scale Technologies.
But just what this computer would look like or exactly how long it will take to create is still unclear.
“The truth is that if you go back to the 1960s, the technology for a moonshot was largely known. It was largely an engineering effort, albeit one of tremendous scale,” said J. Steve Binkley, the associate director of the Department of Energy’s office of Advanced Scientific Computing Research. “In the case of exascale, there are a couple of areas where we still need to do active research.”
Binkley said he believes the initiative can hit the exascale target in roughly a decade, but that depends on funding and overcoming some technical challenges.
And the Obama administration is doubling down. “This national response will require a cohesive, strategic effort within the Federal Government and a close collaboration between the public and private sectors,” according to Obama’s executive order, which was signed last week.
The initiative came out of a two-year interagency working group focused on figuring out how high-powered computing could help national security, economic competitiveness and scientific achievement, Binkley said.
The Energy Department, the Defense Department and the National Science Foundation will lead the initiative — designing systems that could be used by even more parts of government, including NASA and the FBI. While America is the land of tech giants, such as Google and IBM, China is currently leading the supercomputing arms race.
The Tianhe-2 supercomputer developed by China’s National University of Defense technology is the most powerful system in the world with a peak performance of around 54.9 petaflops — the level below exascale — according to TOP500, a project that tracks the performance of supercomputers.
“We’ve allowed much of our technology to go overseas and be exported — so now we have to buy back technology we’ve developed,” Sterling said. “If we’re not careful, we will lose further ground.”
Yet the United States is still in the race. The Titan supercomputer at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory is currently the world’s second-most powerful. And earlier this year, the agency struck a deal with Intel and supercomputing company Cray to deliver a system capable of 180 petaflops by 2018.
Supercomputing comes with its own set of challenges, including how efficiently they operate. Some existing supercomputer systems essentially waste the vast majority of their processing power when attempting to complete tasks, Sterling said, and that wasted processing power has real-world energy costs.
“If you scale current technology up to exascale levels, it would be up to the range of a nuclear power plant just to run one computer,” Binkley said. Addressing that problem will be one of the focuses of the initiative, he said.