US building $675m supercomputer

SAN FRANCISCO • The US Department of Energy has disclosed details of one of the most expensive computers being built: A US$500 million (S$675 million) machine based on Intel and Cray technology that may become crucial in a high-stakes technology race between the United States and China.

The supercomputer, called Aurora, is a retooling of a development first announced in 2015, and is scheduled to be delivered to the Argonne National Laboratory in 2021. Lab officials predict it will be the first American machine to reach a milestone called "exascale" performance, surpassing a quintillion calculations per second.

That is roughly seven times the speed rating of the most powerful system built to date, or 1,000 times faster than the first "petascale" systems that began arriving in 2008.

Backers hope the new machines will let researchers create significantly more accurate simulations of phenomena such as drug responses, climate changes and the inner workings of combustion engines and solar panels.

Supercomputers, which play a major role in tasks such as weapons design and code-breaking, have long been considered a proxy for national competitiveness in science and technology. The US led the field for decades, but China has become an aggressive rival.

An IBM system called Summit, built for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, took back the No. 1 position last year on a twice-yearly ranking of the world's 500 most powerful systems - a spot held by China for five years. But China leads by another key measure. It accounted for 227 systems on the Top 500 list, compared with 109 for the US.

But Aurora - which is also designed to exploit new advances in the field of artificial intelligence - may not crack the new speed barrier first.


Mr Jack Dongarra, a computer scientist at the University of Tennessee, is tracking plans for three systems in China that are scheduled to be delivered in 2020 with exascale performance.

Aurora, which far exceeds the US$200 million price for Summit, represents a record government contract for Intel and a test of its continued leadership in supercomputers.

The Silicon Valley giant's popular processors power most such machines. But additional accelerator chips are considered essential to reach the very highest speeds, and its rival Nvidia has built a sizeable business adapting chips first used with video games for use in supercomputers.

The features discussed on Monday include unreleased Intel accelerator chips, a version of its standard Xeon processor, new memory and communications technology and a design that packages chips on top of one another to save space and power.

Cray, a longtime supercomputer maker, is providing a system design called Shasta, as well as technology to speed the flow of data inside Aurora, said Mr Peter Ungaro, the company's chief executive.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2019, with the headline 'US building $675m supercomputer'. Subscribe