The US pioneered work in supercomputers decades ago, but the most powerful systems have resided in China for several years. That’s changing today with the unveiling of Summit, a new supercomputer from IBM and the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).
It’s an order of magnitude more powerful than current US supercomputers and fast enough to beat every other system in the world with a theoretical peak performance of 200 petaflops per second. More than that, it has the hardware to support machine learning and artificial intelligence processing on a previously unheard-of scale.
But it isn’t just national pride that’s at stake here. Supercomputers are already being used in industry for everything from designing new aircraft to creating new materials. Others are employed by the military to design nuclear weapons, and by scientists to conduct fundamental research. If the most powerful one is in the US, American researchers and the country’s armed forces will have an extra edge.
The raw processing power isn’t the only thing that makes Summit impressive. The AI-enabled hardware of Summit will allow researchers to train and operate neural networks and process massive data sets.
IBM and Oak Ridge National Laboratory expect scientists to clamor for time on the new supercomputer. ORNL says Summit already has a full schedule including work on cancer research, fusion energy, and addiction treatment.
The previous top supercomputer in the US, known as Titan, is also an ORNL project. This machine features an Nvidia GPU in every node, which was unusual at the time. It has a peak performance of about 27 petaflops per second. The top supercomputer on Earth before Summit was the Chinese Sunway TaihuLight system. It has a max capacity of 125 petaflops per second. At 200 petaflops, Summit beats it by a comfortable margin.
The Department of Energy is also working on a smaller version of Summit called Sierra. This supercomputer will have “only” four V100 GPUs per node for a maximum processing capacity of around 125 petaflops. Sierra should be online at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory later this year.
The team at Oak Ridge says Summit is the first supercomputer designed from the ground up to run AI applications, such as machine learning and neural networks.
It has over 27,000 GPU chips from Nvidia, whose products have supercharged plenty of AI applications, and also includes some of IBM’s Power9 chips, which the company launched last year specifically for AI workloads. There’s also an ultrafast communications link for shipping data between these silicon workhorses.
Bob Picciano of IBM says all this allows Summit to run some applications up to 10 times faster than Titan while using only 50 percent more electrical power. Among the AI-related projects slated to run on the new supercomputer is one that will crunch through huge volumes of written reports and medical images to try to identify possible relationships between genes and cancer.
Another will try to identify genetic traits that could predispose people to opioid addiction and other afflictions.