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Oak Ridge National Lab Gets Ready for Next-Generation Supercomputer

Frontier.jpg
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
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Oak Ridge’s Summit supercomputer is the fastest in the world. It’s eight times faster than its predecessor. But as impressive as the machine is, Oak Ridge’s top computer scientists are already planning for a next generation that will be capable of even more. WUOT’s Brandon Hollingsworth reports.

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In 1970, a million calculations per second was the stratosphere for computing. Today, the reigning champion of supercomputing is called Summit. It lives at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. And it can do 200,000 trillion calculations per second at its peak. But computer years are kind of like dog years. Things age fast. Though Summit went online just a year and a half ago, it’s already approaching its adolescence.

“In terms of, let’s call it dog years, as you pointed out, we think about supercomputers as lasting maybe three or four years," University of Tennessee professor Jack Dongarra says. Dongarra keeps up with supercomputing and the state of its art.

“So you purchase the machine. These machines are in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And after three or four years, they basically becomes scraps," he says.

The people who work with Summit are now building its successor. It’s called Frontier. As powerful as Summit is, Frontier is expected to take a major step forward. It’s going to be not a little bit faster, or a skosh more powerful. Oak Ridge National Lab says Frontier is predicted to be eight times faster than Summit.

“Why is that important?" says Justin Whitt, who heads up the Frontier project. "Well, the faster that you can do calculations, the more scientists you can get through the system. That’s one part of it. The other part of it is, the faster the computer can do calculations, the more complex your simulations can be.”

That’s a big point: why build a computer that’s going to be way faster than one that’s already impressively powerful? Because some scientists are conducting important but complicated studies that need a lot of computing power to digest data and churn out predictions and results. Justin Whitt says those research projects include the physics of outer space.

“For instance, studying stars and learning more about how the fusion process happens, and then being able to apply that to new energy sources," Whitt says.

ORNL researcher Dan Jacobson says Frontier can aid his studies into the vital medical questions of inner space.

“We’re very interested in neuropsychological conditions, including things like substance abuse, opioids addiction. Because there are actually complex mechanisms at play in addiction, and in fact, in people’s propensity to be addicted," he says.

There’s another element to building Frontier: bragging rights. In a situation reminiscent of the space race in the 1960s, computing centers in the U.S. and China are vying to see who can build and use the world’s fastest computers. It’s a hot competition.

Even as the wiring, cooling systems and electrical power for Frontier are being installed – and still more than a year before the machine will even be switched on – the University of Tennessee’s Jack Dongarra says computer scientists are already thinking ahead to future generations of even more powerful computing systems.

“Now, it’s a question, can we add more processors?" he says. "Can we continue going? Is there some limit in terms of, how many we can have? And I think the answer is there’s no limit. We have an incredible thirst here for computing power.”

That thirst may result in better weather forecasts, more information about the big questions in physics, and a greater understanding of processes in the human body. And it will push forward the goalposts associated with the title “World’s Fastest Supercomputer.”

The original version of this story incorrectly stated Frontier will be fifty times faster than its immediate predecessor, Summit. Frontier will be fifity times faster than Titan, an older ORNL supercomputer. It will be eight times faster than Summit. The story has been corrected to reflect this.