U.S. commits $250M to spur supercomputing speeds

Thunderbird Supercomputer at the Sandia National Labs. 

The Department of Energy hopes to accelerate development of the nation's first exascale computer, with over $250 million in funding to some of the country's top computer makers.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced on June 15 the $258 million funding awards under the agency's Exascale Computing Project, which is part of the agency's  PathForward program for high-performance computing development. The ECP looks to accelerate the research and development of exascale supercomputers with private industry.

Exascale computing is a holy grail of sorts in computing. With the technology's potential to perform a million trillion operations per second, it stands to not only help researchers unlock the secrets of the universe, but along the way vastly improve data analytics in cybersecurity, climate change modeling, aerodynamics and energy applications.

China has been accelerating development of supercomputers in recent years and is home to the most powerful high-performance computing system. In the spring of 2016, China debuted its 93 petaflop Sunway TaihuLight system at the National Supercomputing Center in Wuxi. According to a report from a meeting hosted by DOE and the National Security Agency, many experts agreed that China would be leading the world in supercomputing by 2020. China has said that it plans to break the exascale barrier by 2020.

The ECP program and the push to get an exascale system, or possibly two, operational isn't to catch up to China, said ECP Director Paul Messina. Its goal is to develop an exascale computer that is capable of working through actual applications. Messina said it's unclear if China's system is exascale only at raw peak operational speed, or like the EPC's effort, it will be capable of working on actual applications. 

Messina said the joint development with commercial companies is essential to tackle development of memory architectures, higher speed interconnects, improved reliability and approaches for increasing computing power without prohibitive increases in energy demand.

The funds will be distributed over a three-year period to six companies to accelerate the research necessary to deploy the first exascale supercomputers in the U.S. by 2021.

Advanced Micro Devices, Cray Inc., Hewlett Packard Enterprise, IBM, Intel Corp. and NVIDIA Corp. are being funded under the awards. Those companies will kick in additional funding that amounts to at least 40 percent of their total project cost, bringing the total investment to at least $430 million, DOE said.

"Continued U.S. leadership in high performance computing is essential to our security, prosperity, and economic competitiveness as a nation," Perry said in a prepared statement. "These awards will enable leading U.S. technology firms to marshal their formidable skills, expertise, and resources in the global race for the next stage in supercomputing -- exascale-capable systems."

The funding, said DOE, will support R&D in hardware technology, software technology and application development. Ultimately, the machines developed under the program will be purchased by DOE's national labs, according to Messina. The existing Titan system at Oak Ridge National Laboratory currently ranks third fastest in the world, behind two systems in China.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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