Intel and Energy Department Plan Exascale Aurora Supercomputer by 2021

US and Japan are expected to be behind China in launching exascale systems.

Wylie Wong, Regular Contributor

March 18, 2019

4 Min Read
mistral supercomputer hpc hamburg
The Mistral supercomputer, installed in 2016 at the German Climate Computing Center (DKRZ, or Deutsches Klimarechenzentrum) in Hamburg, Germany, photographed in 2017Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images

Intel and the US Department of Energy on Monday announced plans to build the country’s first exascale supercomputer at Argonne National Laboratory by 2021, a major milestone that government officials say will spur innovation, bolster health research, and accelerate scientific discoveries.

The new $500 million Aurora supercomputer, which will run on Intel Xeon processors and Cray hardware, will become the first high performance computing system in the US that reaches exaflop speeds (a thousand petaflops, or a billion billion calculations per second). Aurora will be at least seven times faster than today's fastest supercomputer in the world, the Summit system at the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which reaches 143.5 petaflops.

“This system will be an excellent platform for traditional high performance computing applications, but it’s also being designed to be very fast for data analytics and an excellent platform for deep learning,” Rick Stevens, associate laboratory director for computing, environment, and life sciences at the Argonne National Laboratory, said on a conference call with reporters.

Exascale has been the supercomputing industry’s Holy Grail. The US, China, Japan, and several European countries have been racing to build exascale supercomputers. Nations jostle for bragging rights to have the fastest supercomputer in the world. After China reigned atop supercomputer rankings for five straight years, the US last summer reclaimed its number-one worldwide ranking with Summit.

Related:IBM, Nvidia Build “World’s Fastest Supercomputer” for US Government

China is reportedly attempting to build an exascale supercomputer by the end of 2020, but it may be delayed by six months to a year, while Japan is targeting 2021, and Europeans are aiming to build their first exascale system by 2023, according MIT Technology Review.

“The US, China, Japan, and Europe are in a race for achieving exascale computing, which is an artificial race. There are no losers. They will all get there, with perhaps a few months difference,” Peter Rutten, research director of IDC’s core and edge infrastructure group, told us.  

Exascale supercomputers are expected to have a big impact on everyday life, according to the Energy Department’s Exascale Computing Project, a collaborative effort among national labs to build a strong ecosystem, including applications, to ensure exascale’s success.

Exascale supercomputers will run more realistic simulations for everything from medicine and climate research to astrophysics, energy, and materials science research. By driving new discoveries, the technology can boost economic competitiveness and national security, the organization says.

Related:The World’s 10 Fastest Supercomputers – in Pictures update from June 2020

Intel Architecture

The Aurora supercomputer is a big win for Intel, which competes against IBM, Nvidia, and others in the HPC processor market. In fact, while five of today’s ten fastest supercomputers run on Intel Xeon chips, the two fastest ones, Summit and Sierra, a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory system, run on a combination of IBM Power9 and Nvidia processors.

Aurora will be built over the next three years using an upcoming Intel Xeon Scalable processor, Intel Optane DC Persistent Memory technology, and the new Intel X Compute Architecture, Rajeeb Hazra, corporate VP and general manager of Intel’s enterprise and government group, said.

These Intel technologies will run on Cray Shasta supercomputer hardware, he said. Cray is a subcontractor on the project.

“We see this as a very important transformational moment in the evolution of high performance computing,” Hazra said.

Once Aurora is up and running in 2021, researchers will use the supercomputer on a variety of research projects including better understanding earthquake hazards, better predicting climate on a regional scale, designing better batteries, and developing more efficient wind and nuclear power, Stevens said.

On the health front, researchers will work with the National Institutes of Health on cancer research, and with the Veterans Administration on several projects including using data analytics to better understand risk factors for suicide and finding ways to improve outcomes, he said.

Researchers will also do research to boost national defense. The Department of Defense no longer tests strategic weapons, but through HPC, it can continue to do research through simulations, said Paul Dabbar, the undersecretary of science for the Department of Energy.

“It’s an exciting announcement for the whole community in science,” he said. “We very much look forward to moving together as partners with the private sector to deploy yet again the number-one HPC in the world.”

Stevens declined to say how much power the new Aurora supercomputer will consume. He said the Energy Department will release full technology specs of the Aurora system in the future. When asked about other potential US exascale projects, he said several procurements are in progress.

About the Author(s)

Wylie Wong

Regular Contributor

Wylie Wong is a journalist and freelance writer specializing in technology, business and sports. He previously worked at CNET, Computerworld and CRN and loves covering and learning about the advances and ever-changing dynamics of the technology industry. On the sports front, Wylie is co-author of Giants: Where Have You Gone, a where-are-they-now book on former San Francisco Giants. He previously launched and wrote a Giants blog for the San Jose Mercury News, and in recent years, has enjoyed writing about the intersection of technology and sports.

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