US Retakes Top Spot in Supercomputer Race

The United States has regained a coveted speed crown in computing with a powerful new supercomputer in Tennessee, a milestone for technology that plays a major role in science, medicine and other fields.

Frontier, the name of the massive machine at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was announced on Monday to demonstrate the performance of one quintillion operation per second – one billion billion calculations – in a set of standard tests used by researchers to rank supercomputers. The US Department of Energy pledged several years ago to build $ 1.8 billion with three systems that “exascale” performance, as scientists call it.

But the crown has a caveat. Some experts believe that Frontier has beaten the exascale race by two systems in China. Those systems of operators have not submitted test results for evaluation by scientists who oversee the so-called Top500 rankings. Experts said they suspected that tensions between the United States and China may be the reason Chinese have not submitted test results.

“There are rumors that China has something,” said Jack Dongarra, a retired professor of computer science at the University of Tennessee who leads the Top500 effort. “There is nothing official.”

Supercomputers have long been a flash point in international competition. The room-size machines were first built for cracking codes and designing weapons, but now also play major roles in developing vaccines, testing car designs and modeling climate change.

The field was dominated by US technology for decades, but China has become a dominant force. A system called Sunway TaihuLight was ranked the world’s fastest from 2016 to 2018. China accounted for 173 systems on the latest Top500 list, compared with 126 machines in the United States.

Japan has been a smaller but still potent contender. A system called Fugaku, in Kobe, took the No. 1 spot in June 2020, displacing an IBM system at Oak Ridge.

Frontier gives that top position back to the lab. The system, built by Hewlett Packard Enterprise using two types of chips from Advanced Micro Devices, was used more than twice as fast as Fugaku in the tests used by the Top500 organization.

“This is a proud moment for our nation,” said Thomas Zacharia, director of Oak Ridge, at an online briefing from an industry event in Germany. “It reminds us we can still go after something that is bigger than us.”

Building the system, composed of 74 cabinets that each weighs 8,000 pounds, was made more difficult by the pandemic and problems obtaining components in the supply chain crisis, Mr. Zacharia said. But he predicted that Frontier would swiftly have a major impact in the impact of Covid and a transition to cleaner energy sources, for example.

Chinese researchers used to determine the ranking process. But the country has adopted a lower profile in promoting its supercomputer progress as the United States has taken steps to slow China’s technology advances – including making it harder for some Chinese companies to acquire foreign chips that can be used to make supercomputers. General Chat Chat Lounge

But China has been making 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, reported details last year of two exascale-class supercomputers that he used to use Chinese chip technology.

One is a successor to the earlier Sunway machine, called OceanLight, according to a presentation by Mr. Kahaner shared at a technical conference. The other machine, Tianhe-3, succeeds in a system called Tianhe-1A that became the first Chinese machine to take a number in 2010. 1 spot on the Top500 list.

More evidence that China broke 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, simulating a quantum computing circuit on the new Sunway system running at exascale speeds. General Chat Chat Lounge The calculating job, estimated to take 10,000 years at Oak Ridge’s fastest priority supercomputer, took 304 seconds on the Chinese system, the researchers reported in a technical paper.

“They kind of let it leak that they had machines running at exascale levels,” said Steve Conway, an 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 said they believed the chips in the new Chinese machines were manufactured in Taiwan, which is true of the key chips in Frontier. China is far behind in advanced chip-making capability, he said.

The Oak Ridge machine, along with aiding scientists, could help suppliers popularize some new products. Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which purchased the supercomputer pioneer Cray in 2019, shared networking technology called SlingShot that had a significant impact on Frontier’s performance, Mr. Zacharia said.

And AMD has not only contributed microprocessors but also a kind of graphics processing chip that has been sold to supercomputers by a rival, Nvidia. The same two AMD chips were selected for an exascale system called El Capitan that is scheduled to be installed in 2023 at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

A third exascale machine at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, using three types of chips from Intel, was originally scheduled for delivery in 2021. But manufacturing problems at Intel delayed that system, which is now expected later this year.

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