Supercomputing poised for a massive speed boost
At the end of July, workers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee began filling up a cavernous room with the makings of a computational behemoth: row upon row of neatly stacked computing units, some 290 kilometres of fibre-optic cable and a cooling system capable of carrying a swimming pool’s worth of water. The US Department of Energy (DOE) expects that when this US$280-million machine, called Summit, becomes ready next year, it will enable the United States to regain a title it hasn’t held since 2012 — home of the fastest supercomputer in the world.
Summit is designed to run at a peak speed of 200 petaflops, able to crunch through as many as 200 million billion ‘floating-point operations’ — a type of computational arithmetic — every second. That could make Summit 60% faster than the current world-record holder, in China.
But for many computer scientists, Summit’s completion is merely one lap of a much longer race. Around the world, teams of engineers and scientists are aiming for the next leap in processing ability: ‘exascale’ computers, capable of running at a staggering 1,000 or more petaflops. Already, four national or international teams, working with the computing industries in their regions, are pushing towards this ambitious target. China plans to have its first exascale machine running by 2020. The United States, through the DOE’s Exascale Computing Project, aims to build at least one by 2021. And the European Union and Japan are expected to be close behind.