Q&A: Exascale now a global race for tech

Top scientist Peter Beckman details U.S. steps, international rivalry

The international competition to build an exascale supercomputer is gaining steam, especially in China and Europe, according to Peter Beckman, a top computer scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory.

An exascale system will require new approaches in software, hardware and storage. It is why Europe and China, in particular, are marshaling scientists, research labs and government funding on exascale development. They see exascale systems as an opportunity to build homegrown technology industries, particularly in high-performance computing, according to Beckman.

An exascale system is measured in exaflops; an exaflop is 1 quintillion (or 1 million trillion) floating point operations per second. It is 1,000 times more powerful than a petaflop system, the fastest systems in use today.

The Department of Energy (DOE) is expected to deliver to Congress by Feb. 10 a report detailing this nation's plan to achieve exascale computing. The government recently received responses from 22 technology firms to its request for information (RFI) about the goal to develop an exascale system by 2019-2020 that uses no more than 20 megawatts (MWs) of power. To put that power usage in perspective, a 20-petaflop system being developed by IBM, which will likely be considered one of the most energy efficient in the world, will use seven to eight MWs.

Beckman, the director of the Exascale Technology and Computing Institute at DOE's Argonne National Laboratory, talked with Computerworld about current developments in exascale. Excerpts from that interview follow:

The Department of Energy wants an exascale system by 2019-2020, and one that operates on no more than 20MW. What did DOE learn from the tech industry responses? About 22 companies replied. [DOE isn't disclosing the names of the responding companies.]They had a wide range of types of companies. Some were integrators; some were chip designers, software companies. All of them said that this is a great challenge and that we think we can make fantastic progress on this, but it will be really hard. We're setting pretty lofty goals, hard things. But if you start out saying that 100MW will be just fine, then you're not really pushing the envelope. The 20MW is very difficult to achieve, but we want to see new technology to make that happen, and so all of them, universally, said that was hard.

Did they ask you to adjust the 20MW requirements? All the responders said it would be a difficult target to reach without a strong investment. If we allowed them twice as much power, 40MW or 50MW, then it is much simpler. They also said that the system software and the whole software stack required an integrated approach. Most of the responses, I would say, were light on the data challenges. People know that data is a challenge, but they really focused, in the responses, on the computing.

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