The United States has regained the coveted crown of computing speed with a powerful new supercomputer in Tennessee, a milestone for technology that plays an important role in science, medicine and other fields.
Frontier, the name of a massive machine at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was announced Monday as the first to demonstrate a performance of 1 quintillion operations per second – a billion billion computations – in a set of standard tests used by researchers to rank supercomputers. The U.S. Department of Energy a few years ago promised $ 1.8 billion to build three systems with such “ex-scale” characteristics, as scientists call it.
But the crown has a caveat. Some experts believe that Frontier was beaten in the ex-scale race by two systems in China. The operators of these systems did not provide test results for evaluation by scientists who oversee the so-called Top500 ranking. Experts say they suspect that tensions between the US and China may be the reason why the Chinese did not present test results.
“There are rumors that China has something,” said Jack Dongara, an outstanding professor of computer science at the University of Tennessee who helps lead Top500’s work. “There is nothing official.”
Supercomputers have long been a point in international competitions. Room-sized machines were originally built for hacking codes and developing weapons, but now also play an important role in vaccine development, car design testing and climate change modeling.
The industry has been dominated by U.S. technology for decades, but China has become the dominant power. The system called Sunway TaihuLight was recognized as the fastest in the world from 2016 to 2018. China ranks 173rd in the latest Top500 list compared to 126 machines in the United States.
Japan was a smaller but still strong opponent. A system called Fugaku in Kobe took first place in June 2020, displacing the IBM system in Oak Ridge.
Frontier returns this top position to the lab. The system, created by Hewlett Packard Enterprise using two types of chips from Advanced Micro Devices, was more than twice as fast as Fugaku in tests used by Top500.
“This is a moment of honor for our nation,” Thomas Zacharias, director of Oak Ridge, said at an online briefing from an industry event in Germany. “It reminds us that we can still go for something bigger than us.”
Building the system, which consists of 74 cabinets, each weighing 8,000 pounds, has been complicated by a pandemic and problems with getting components in a supply chain crisis, Zachary said. But he predicted that Frontier would soon have a major impact on studying the impact of COVID and, for example, facilitating the transition to cleaner energy sources.
Earlier, Chinese researchers participated in the ranking process. But the country has taken a smaller profile in advancing its progress in supercomputers as the United States has taken a number of steps to slow China’s technological progress, including making it difficult for some Chinese companies to acquire foreign chips that can be used to make supercomputers. .
But China has made significant progress in developing its own microprocessors, which is key to advances in supercomputers. David Kahaner, an authority in the field who heads the Asian Technology Information Program, last year reported details of two exascale-class supercomputers that he said use Chinese chip technology.
One is the successor to Sunway’s former machine, called OceanLight, according to a presentation Kahaner shared at a technical conference. Another machine, the Tianhe-3, changed the system to the Tianhe-1A, which in 2010 became the first Chinese machine to top the Top500 list.
Additional evidence that China has overcome the ex-scale barrier emerged in November when a group of 14 Chinese researchers received the prestigious Computing Association Award, the Gordon Bell Prize, for modeling a quantum computing scheme in a new Sunway fast-running system. . . The computation, which is estimated to have taken 10,000 years on Oak Ridge’s fastest supercomputer, took 304 seconds in the Chinese system, the researchers said in a technical paper.
“They kind of let us know that their cars are running at exoscale levels,” said Steve Conway, an analyst at Hyperion Research. “A lot of speculation is that they didn’t want to attract more US sanctions.”
Conway and other experts said they believe the chips in the new Chinese machines were made in Taiwan, which is true of Key Frontier chips. He said China lags far behind in advanced chip production capabilities.
The Oak Ridge machine, in addition to helping scientists, can help vendors promote some new products. Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which acquired the pioneering Cray supercomputer in 2019, has contributed to a networking technology called SlingShot that has had a significant impact on Frontier’s performance, Zachary said.
And AMD has contributed not only microprocessors, but also a kind of chip for graphics processing, which is mainly sold to supercomputers competitor, Nvidia. The same two AMD chips have been selected for an exoscale system called El Capitan, which is scheduled to be installed in 2023 at Lawrence’s Livermore National Laboratory in California.
The third Exascale machine at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, which uses three types of chips from Intel, was originally scheduled for delivery in 2021. But production problems at Intel have delayed the system, which is now expected later this year.