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U.S. Retakes Top Spot in Supercomputer Race


The US has regained a coveted speed crown in computing with a robust latest supercomputer in Tennessee, a milestone for the technology that plays a significant role in science, medicine and other fields.

Frontier, the name of the huge machine at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was declared on Monday to be the primary to show performance of 1 quintillion operations per second — a billion billion calculations — in a set of normal tests utilized by researchers to rank supercomputers. The U.S. Department of Energy several years ago pledged $1.8 billion to construct three systems with that “exascale” performance, as scientists call it.

However the crown has a caveat. Some experts consider that Frontier has been beaten within the exascale race by two systems in China. Operators of those systems haven’t submitted test results for evaluation by scientists who oversee the so-called Top500 rating. Experts said they suspected that tensions between the US and China could be the reason the Chinese haven’t submitted the test results.

“There are rumors China has something,” said Jack Dongarra, a distinguished professor of computer science on the University of Tennessee who helps lead the Top500 effort. “There may be 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 automobile designs and modeling climate change.

The sector was dominated by U.S. technology for a long time, but China has grow to be a dominant force. A system there called Sunway TaihuLight was ranked the world’s fastest from 2016 to 2018. China accounted for 173 systems on the newest Top500 list, compared with 126 machines in the US.

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 sorts of chips from Advanced Micro Devices, was greater than twice as fast as Fugaku within the tests utilized by the Top500 organization.

“It’s a proud moment for our nation,” said Thomas Zacharia, director of Oak Ridge, at a web based briefing from an industry event in Germany. “It reminds us we are able to still go after something that is larger than us.”

Constructing the system, composed of 74 cabinets that every weighs 8,000 kilos, was made tougher by the pandemic and problems obtaining components in the availability chain crisis, Mr. Zacharia said. But he predicted that Frontier would swiftly have a significant impact in studying the impact of Covid and aiding the transition to cleaner energy sources, for instance.


May 27, 2022, 3:14 p.m. ET

Chinese researchers used to take part in the rating process. However the country has adopted a lower profile in promoting its supercomputer progress as the US has taken a series of steps to slow China’s technology advances — including by making it harder for some Chinese corporations to amass the foreign chips that may be used to make supercomputers.

But China has been making significant progress in designing its own microprocessors, a key to advances in supercomputers. David Kahaner, an authority in the sphere who heads the Asian Technology Information Program, reported details last 12 months of two exascale-class supercomputers that he said use Chinese chip technology.

One is a successor to the sooner Sunway machine, called OceanLight, in keeping with a presentation Mr. Kahaner shared at a technical conference. The opposite machine, Tianhe-3, succeeds a system called Tianhe-1A that in 2010 became the primary Chinese machine to take a No. 1 spot on the Top500 list.

More evidence that China broke the exascale barrier emerged in November, when a gaggle 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 brand new Sunway system running at exascale speeds. The calculating job, estimated to take 10,000 years on Oak Ridge’s fastest prior supercomputer, took 304 seconds on the Chinese system, the researchers reported in a technical paper.

“They form of let it leak that that they had machines running at exascale levels,” said Steve Conway, an analyst at Hyperion Research. “Loads of the speculation is that they didn’t need to attract more U.S. sanctions.”

Mr. Conway and other experts said they believed that the chips in the brand new Chinese machines were manufactured in Taiwan, which is true of the important thing chips in Frontier. China stays far behind in advanced chip-making capability, he said.

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

And AMD contributed not only microprocessors but additionally a form of graphics processing chip that has mainly been sold for supercomputers by a rival, Nvidia. The identical two AMD chips were chosen for an exascale system called El Capitan that’s scheduled to be installed in 2023 at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

A 3rd exascale machine at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, using three sorts 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 12 months.

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