The Feds Want Faster, Greener Supercomputers

President Obama’s budget is asking for $126 million for the Department of Energy to reach a supercomputing milestone — exascale performance. While supercomputing is an obscure branch of computing using odd benchmarks that even supercomputer experts sometimes debate, the need for supercomputers or high performance computing is only growing as we’re asking our machines to analyze more data, and appear on popular gameshows.

Supercomputers breached the petascale barrier back in 2008 with IBM’s Roadrunner and Cray’s Jaguar performing more than a million billion calculations per second, and thoughts immediately turned to the next obvious milestone, achieving one billion billion calculations a second. But instead of speeding up processors and the networking technology inside the machines, researchers are going to have to think first and foremost about power. Running an exascale supercomputer could require up to two city-sized power plants if scientist build the supercomputer out like the current machines. That’s not going to fly.

And because supercomputers now tend to run more mainstream components and software, the answers researchers find for their power and performance problems may be of use sooner rather than later for webscale computing or corporate IT departments. Perhaps we’ll see an ARM-based supercomputer or an entirely new architecture emerge if this funding is actually allocated. Maybe we’ll get a more power efficient optical networking technology, that could scale more cheaply for use inside the data center (going all optical saves power because it eliminates the need to switch a fiber optical signal back to an electrical one). The President’s budget may not pass Congress, but these dollars aren’t just about an obscure search for high-end machines, they could benefit and get benefits from more traditional computing innovations.

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