Obama rolls out plan to boost U.S. supercomputer prowess

Titan supercomputer

This Titan supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory will be replaced as top dog in 2018 by Summit, a 200-petaflop machine.

Credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

U.S. President Barack Obama has signed an executive order setting up the National Strategic Computing Initiative, to coordinate government agencies, academia and the private sector for the development of high-performance computing systems.

Adopting a "whole-of-government" approach, involving all departments and agencies with expertise and interests in high-performance computing (HPC), one of the objectives of the NSCI will be to speed up the delivery of "a capable exascale computing system that integrates hardware and software capability to deliver approximately 100 times the performance of current 10 petaflop systems across a range of applications representing government needs."

China currently leads the supercomputer race with the Tianhe-2 computer, developed by China's National University of Defense Technology, heading the list for over two years. The Tianhe-2's maximum achieved performance of 33.86 petaflops per second (quadrillions of calculations per second) on the Linpack benchmark is almost double that of Titan, a Cray XK7 supercomputer installed at the U.S. Department of Energy, which rated 17.59 petaflops per second, according to latest edition of the Top500 list of the world's top supercomputers.

The U.S. still has the largest number of supercomputers on the Top500 list with 233 such computers, down from 265 on the November 2013 list.

The government appears to want to remedy that situation. "Maximizing the benefits of HPC in the coming decades will require an effective national response to increasing demands for computing power, emerging technological challenges and opportunities, and growing economic dependency on and competition with other nations," Obama wrote in his order on Wednesday. 

One of the objectives of the NSCI will be to provide a viable path over the next 15 years, even after the limits of current semiconductor technology are reached in the "post-Moore's law era." The law, named after Intel cofounder Gordon Moore, predicts the doubling of transistor density approximately every two years, allowing chips to get faster and cheaper.

The three lead agencies for the NSCI will be the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation, each focusing on different areas of HPC. They will work with the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), described as foundational research and development agencies. While IARPA will focus on alternatives to standard semiconductor computing technologies, NIST will focus on measurement science.

Obama has also named deployment agencies, which are essentially key user agencies that could participate in and influence the design of systems, software and applications, to integrate their special requirements. These agencies are NASA, the FBI, the National Institutes of Health, Department of Homeland Security, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The NSCI executive council, co-chaired by the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, will submit an implementation plan within 90 days of Obama's order.

Obama did not, however, announce a timeline for the creation of the supercomputer. The Department of Energy has said it plans to develop and deliver exascale computing systems by 2023 or 2024, with a hundred to thousand-fold increase in sustained performance over current computing capabilities. A department task force said last year an incremental $3 billion in investment would be required over 10 years to deliver the exascale computing.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

The march toward exascale computers
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