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Coming by 2023, an exascale supercomputer in the U.S.

Patrick Thibodeau | Nov. 20, 2014
That's assuming Congress allocates the money for it.

Wide-angle view of the ALMA correlator, one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world.
The ALMA correlator, one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world, has now been fully installed and tested at its remote, high altitude site in the Andes of northern Chile. This wide-angle view shows some of the racks of the correlator in the ALMA Array Operations Site Technical Building. This photograph shows one of four quadrants of the correlator. The full system has four identical quadrants, with over 134 million processors, performing up to 17 quadrillion operations per second. [December 2012] Credit: European Southern Observatory (ESO)

NEW ORLEANS -- The U.S. has set 2023 as the target date for producing the next great leap in supercomputing, if its plans aren't thwarted by two presidential and four Congressional elections between now and then.

It may seem odd to note the role of politics in a story about supercomputing. But as these systems get more complex -- and expensive -- they compete for science dollars from a Congress unafraid of cutting science funding.

That political reality has frustrated the supercomputing community, and prompted an effort at this year's big supercomputing conference, SC14, here to educate researchers on the need to sell the benefits of supercomputing to a broader audience.

The theme of this year's conference: "HPC matters."

Supercomputing funding efforts in the U.S. are getting a boost from rising global competition from Europe, Japan and China, which now has the world's faster supercomputer. The U.S. Department of Energy last week announced $325 million for two 150-petaflop systems from IBM, with an option on one system to build it out to 300 petaflops.

Dave Turek, vice president of technical computing at IBM, said these systems have the architectural capability to support 500 petaflops, or a half of an exaflop.

One exaflop equals one quintillion (a quintillion is 1 followed by 18 zeros) calculations per second. It is the next great goal in supercomputing that followed the U.S. achievement in 2008 of reaching one petaflop, or 1,000 teraflops, on a system built by IBM. A petaflop equals one quadrillion (1 followed by 15 zeros) calculations per second.

The 2023 date "is when we are going to have an exascale system," William Harrod, Research Division Director for DOE's Advanced Scientific Computing Research program, said in an interview. While the U.S. has spent about $300 million so far on the next generation of systems, that's a "low level," said Harrod.

Congress will have to approve more funding to advance research to meet the development timelines, he said. And while congressional support "looks good today," Harrod isn't predicting the future.


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