Exascale a 'main priority' for DOE

In a House hearing on Energy Department modernization, agency officials discussed the future of supercomputing.

Lawmakers cast a wide net in their questioning of Energy Department officials in a Jan. 9 hearing focused on the agency’s modernization. Witnesses at the House Energy and Commerce hearing, however, found time to highlight the importance of the 17 National Labs' supercomputing capabilities and the department’s effort to make exascale computing a reality by 2021.

Reaching exascale is one of the main priorities for Energy’s Office of Science, according to DOE Deputy Secretary Dan Brouillette.

“Computer modeling and simulation have become vital" to science, the nation's economic competitiveness and its national security, and exascale represents the future. "Supercomputing paces advances in the physical sciences and high-technology areas stewarded by [the DOE Office of Science],” Brouillette said in his written testimony. “This is just one technology area that is essential to U.S. economic security.”

The DOE announced last year it was devoting $258 million to research the hardware, software and applications necessary to achieve exascale computing. Exascale will require strides in a number of different areas in computer technology. DOE’s Advanced Scientific Computing Research program has been working with private-sector partners Intel and Cray on one of these needed advancements for the planned Aurora machine at Argonne National Laboratory.

“This redesign tackled one of the biggest challenges of moving to exascale -- combining a major increase in computational capability with reducing power consumption,” Brouillette explained. “In addition, DOE is moving forward on developing applications for exascale systems, including ones for additive manufacturing and small modular reactors led by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.”

Although DOE remains “a world leader in computational capability," Brouillette said it has seen greater competition from China, which went from having no supercomputers on the Top500 list  to, on the most recent count, having the two most powerful machines in the world.

China said it plans to have exascale capabilities by 2020, and the European Union and Japan are also expected to build similar machines, according to Nature.

Jack Dongarra, a professor at University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who has an appointment at Oak Ridge National Lab and helped create the list of top supercomputers, told GCN last year that Summit, a supercomputer that will come online this year at ORNL, will likely reclaim the No. 1 spot on the Top500 list.

In his testimony before the committee, ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia, agreed this could be the case.

“The DOE national laboratories are actively engaged in reclaiming U.S. leadership in this vital area,”  Zacharia said. “At the [Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility], we are deploying a system that may well be the world’s most powerful supercomputer when it begins operating later this year. Summit will be at least five times as powerful as Titan [America’s current most powerful supercomputer and the fifth most powerful in the world]. It will also be an exceptional resource for deep learning, with the potential to address challenging data analytics problems in a number of scientific domains.”

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