The United States Department of Energy confirmed last week that it had placed a $600 million order to build the world’s fastest supercomputer by 2021.
The machine, dubbed Frontier, will be built by chip designer AMD and supercomputer manufacturer Cray for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee owned by the Department of Energy. The supercomputer is expected to produce more than 1.5 exaflops of processing power, and will be used for a range of tasks, performing advanced calculations in areas like nuclear and climate research.
“Frontier’s record-breaking performance will ensure our country’s ability to lead the world in science that improves the lives and economic prosperity of all Americans and the entire world,” said Secretary of Energy Rick Perry in a press statement. “Frontier will accelerate innovation in artificial intelligence (AI) by giving American researchers world-class data and computing resources to ensure the next great inventions are made in the United States.”
When constructed, Frontier should be the most advanced example of what is known as ‘exascale computing’. This is the next-generation of computing capacity, in which processing power is measured in exaflops, or quintillions of calculations per second. TO put it in perspective, a quintillion is a one followed by a gargantuan eighteen zeros after it: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000.
To give an idea of the scale of this sort of machine, AMD says Frontier will have as much processing power as the next 160 fastest supercomputers in the world combined. It will be able to handle an astonishing amount of data, with a bandwidth 24,000,000 times greater than the average home internet connection, capable of processing 100,000 HD movies in a second. It will also have a correspondingly huge footprint, taking up over 700square meters (roughly equivalent to two basketball courts) and containing nearly 150km of cabling.
But the Frontier is not the only exascale computer the US is currently building. Earlier this year, the Department of Energy announced a similar project: the supercomputer Aurora, which is being constructed by Intel and Cray at Argonne National Laboratory. Aurora will likely be the first exascale supercomputer in the US, but Frontier will have greater processing power.
These machines do not necessarily mean the US is the world’s greater computing power, though. China is expected to have its own exascale supercomputer up and running by 2020 — a year ahead of America. China is also the world’s leader in terms of supercomputer volume, and is currently home to 227 of the world’s fastest computers (compared to just 109 operated by the US). Japan and the European Union are the other main contenders.
The world of supercomputer chips is mostly in the hands of Intel, and AMD has not supplied the processors for the world’s fastest supercomputer since 2012. Nevertheless, the Department of Energy probably chose AMD for a number of reasons, including the performance of its processors, and its recent successes designing semi-custom silicon for Microsoft and Sony. This bodes well for AMD’s future as this is technology that should be in the mainstream market after 2021.