Exascale supercomputers: Are the world’s most powerful machines operating in secret?

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A supercomputer known as Frontier has been formally topped because the world’s first exascale pc – one able to a billion billion operations per second – however extra highly effective machines could also be on the market



Technology



6 June 2022

The Frontier exascale supercomputer

ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Vitality

A brand new supercomputer known as Frontier has been extensively touted because the world’s first exascale machine – however was it actually? Though Frontier, which was constructed by the Oak Ridge Nationwide Laboratory in Tennessee, topped what is mostly seen because the definitive record of supercomputers, others could have already got achieved the milestone in secret.

What’s an exascale pc, and why is it vital?

Exascale is a time period used to explain the arrival of machines that may perform a billion billion operations per second. Exascale has lengthy been a goal – as a spherical quantity usually is – for producers in search of ever larger efficiency.

In the present day, supercomputers are very important in finishing up a variety of scientific analysis, operating massive simulations of every thing from nuclear physics to the consequences of medicine, and even coaching synthetic intelligence fashions. They’re additionally used to mine information and search for patterns. Having probably the most highly effective machine can provide lecturers, corporations or governments an edge.

Who tracks the world’s strongest supercomputers?

The definitive record of supercomputers is the Top500, which relies on a single measurement: how briskly a machine can clear up huge numbers of equations by operating software program known as the LINPACK benchmarks. This offers a price in float-point operations per second, or FLOPS.

However even Jack Dongarra at Top500 admits that not each supercomputer is listed, and can solely characteristic if its proprietor runs the benchmarks and submits a end result. “In the event that they don’t ship it in, it doesn’t get entered,” he says. “I can’t pressure them.”

Why would house owners not need to be listed?

Some house owners favor to not launch a benchmark determine, and even publicly reveal a machine’s existence. Simon McIntosh-Smith on the College of Bristol, UK, factors out that not solely do intelligence businesses and sure corporations have an incentive to maintain their machines secret, however some purely educational machines like Blue Waters, operated by the Nationwide Middle for Supercomputing Purposes on the College of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are additionally simply by no means entered.

Blue Waters challenge director Bill Kramer said in 2012 that the Top500 record was “fascinating sooner or later, some time in the past, however that now in some methods could also be doing detriment to the group”.

How might benchmarking be detrimental?

Whereas FLOPS is a helpful measure of efficiency, totally different machines might be higher suited to sure kinds of process, so LINPACK doesn’t at all times inform the entire story.

McIntosh-Smith says that the other can also be true, and that some house owners are so eager to get on the record that they’ll design their machines to be good at finishing up the benchmark relatively than the on a regular basis duties they had been constructed for. “There have positively been, even not too long ago, techniques the place you’d say they’re compromised ultimately or different to be able to hit a sure LINPACK rating that may imply they’re not fairly so good for extra generic science – wonderful techniques that price lots of of hundreds of thousands of {dollars},” he says.

So what number of exascale machines are there?

Dongarra says that the consensus amongst supercomputer specialists is that China has had not less than two exascale machines operating since 2021, referred to as OceanLight and Tianhe-3, and is engaged on an excellent bigger third known as Sugon. Scientific papers on unconnected research have revealed proof of those machines when describing calculations carried out on them.

McIntosh-Smith additionally believes that intelligence businesses would rank properly, if allowed. “Actually within the [US], a few of the safety forces have issues that will put them on the prime,” he says. “There are positively teams who clearly wouldn’t need this on the record.”

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