Why U.S. science needs costly supercomputers

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Thanks to Frontier, the Department of Energy’s first $600 million exascale supercomputer — located at Oak Ridge National Laboratory — the United States ranks first on the Top500 supercomputer list in the number of calculations that can be performed per second. But Jack Dongarra noted that China, which has two supercomputers ranked sixth and ninth on the list, could overtake the United States’ computing capacity for solving scientific and technological problems.

Dongarra, who has appointments at the University of Tennessee, ORNL, and the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, is this year’s winner of the prestigious A.M. Turing Award from the Association of Computing Machinery, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in computing. It carries a $1 million prize.

Dongarra recently spoke to Friends of ORNL (FORNL).

Jack Dongarra is photographed inside his office on the University of Tennessee at Knoxville campus on Monday, May 2, 2022. Dongarra is the 2021 Turing Award recipient.

In 1993, he explained, he provided a software standard or benchmark for evaluating the relative performances of the world’s top 500 supercomputers twice a year by having them address a problem of solving linear equations. He and two others manage the Top500 list.

Jack Dongarra

Dongarra told FORNL that Frontier has executed calculations at a rate of 1.1 exaflops, or 1.1 quintillion calculations per second — that is, a billion times a billion floating point operations per second, or FLOPS (e.g., addition and multiplication of numbers with decimal points). Frontier is five times faster than the most powerful supercomputers in use today.

The latest TOP500 list shows that DOE’s Frontier supercomputer at ORNL is ranked No. 1 in the world.

To help his audience grasp the power of Frontier, which takes up the space of two tennis courts, Dongarra suggested that we imagine that UT has 60 Neyland Stadiums, each with 100,000 filled seats. To perform the number of calculations per second you can get on Frontier, you must give each person a laptop capable of 166 billion FLOPS and connect the laptops in all the stadiums together. 

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