The United States has regained a coveted speed crown in computing with a powerful new supercomputer in Tennessee, a milestone for the technology playing a major role in science, medicine and other fields.
Frontier, the name of the massive machine at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was said Monday to be the first to demonstrate performance at a quintillion operations per second – a billion billion calculations – in a standard test set. used by researchers to classify supercomputers. Several years ago, the US Department of Energy pledged $1.8 billion to build three systems with this “exascale” performance, as scientists call it.
But the crown has a caveat. Some experts believe that Frontier has been beaten in the exascale race by two systems in China. The operators of these systems have not submitted test results for evaluation by the scientists who oversee the so-called Top500 rankings. Experts said they suspect tensions between the United States and China may be the reason the Chinese have not submitted test results.
“There are rumors that China has something,” said Jack Dongarra, a prominent computer science professor at the University of Tennessee who helps lead the Top500 effort. “There is nothing official”
Supercomputers have long been a flashpoint in international competition. The room-sized machines were first built to crack codes and design weapons, but they now also play major roles in vaccine development, car design testing and climate change modeling .
The field was dominated by American technology for decades, but China has emerged as a dominant force. A system called Sunway TaihuLight was ranked the fastest in the world there from 2016 to 2018. China had 173 systems on the latest Top500 list, compared to 126 machines in the United States.
Japan has been a smaller but still strong competitor. A system called Fugaku, in Kobe, took the top spot in June 2020, replacing an IBM system in Oak Ridge.
Frontier gives back this first place to the laboratory. The system, built 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 the Top500 organization.
“It’s a proud moment for our nation,” Thomas Zacharia, director of Oak Ridge, said during an online briefing from an industry event in Germany. “It reminds us that we can always pursue something that is bigger than us.”
Building the system, made up of 74 cabinets each weighing 8,000 pounds, was made more difficult by the pandemic and problems obtaining components in the supply chain crisis, Zacharia said. But he predicted that Frontier would quickly have a major impact on studying the impact of Covid and helping the transition to cleaner energy sources, for example.
Chinese researchers participated in the ranking process. But the country has taken a lower profile in promoting its supercomputing advances as the United States has taken a series of steps to slow China’s technological progress, including making it harder for some Chinese companies to acquire foreign chips that can be used to make supercomputers. .
But China has made significant progress in designing its own microprocessors, a 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 says use Chinese chip technology.
One is a successor to the old Sunway machine, called OceanLight, according to a presentation Kahaner shared at a tech conference. The other machine, Tianhe-3, succeeds a system called Tianhe-1A which in 2010 became the first Chinese machine to take the top spot on the Top500 list.
Further evidence that China has breached the exascale barrier emerged in November, when a group of 14 Chinese researchers won a prestigious award from the Association for Computing Machinery, the Gordon Bell Prize, for simulating a quantum computing circuit. on the new Sunway system operating at exascale speeds. . The computational work, estimated at 10,000 years on Oak Ridge’s fastest supercomputer, took 304 seconds on the Chinese system, the researchers reported in a technical paper.
“They kind of hinted that they had machines running at exascale levels,” said Steve Conway, analyst at Hyperion Research. “A lot of the speculation is that they didn’t want to attract more US sanctions.”
Mr. Conway and other experts have said they believe the chips in the new Chinese machines are made in Taiwan, which is true of Frontier’s key chips. China lags far behind in advanced chip manufacturing capacity, he said.
The Oak Ridge machine, in addition to helping scientists, could help suppliers popularize certain new products. Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which bought supercomputer pioneer Cray in 2019, contributed networking technology called SlingShot that had a significant impact on Frontier’s performance, Zacharia said.
And AMD brought not only microprocessors but also a kind of graphics processing chip which was mainly sold for supercomputers by a rival, Nvidia. The same two AMD chips were selected for an exascale system called El Capitan that is expected to be installed in 2023 at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
A third exascale machine at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, using three types of chips from Intel, was originally scheduled to ship in 2021. But manufacturing issues at Intel have delayed that system, which is now expected later this year.