July 18, 2013

Senator Says U.S. Congress Doesn’t ‘Get’ Supercomputers

Alex Woodie

Supercomputers are clearly important to the ability of the U.S. to compete on the global stage, but some members of Congress don’t understand that, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin said at the recent dedication of Mira, the IBM BlueGene/Q supercomputer installed last year at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

 ”They know the cost [of supercomputers] but they don’t know the value,” Sen. Durbin said in a recent address during the July 1 dedication ceremony. “We really need to educate members of Congress. This supercomputing competition is really key to America’s competitiveness, and to a lot of breakthroughs that will benefit the whole world.”

The U.S still spends more than any other nation on HPC as a whole, but is at risk of falling behind in the race to develop the first exascale system. China, in particular, has been strong in the HPC field, particularly the high end of the market, where the country already outspends the U.S. on development of massive supercomputers. 

China’s commitment became clear last month, when Tianhe-2, a 3.1-million core supercomputer rated at 33.8 petaflops of continuous performance was named the world’s fastest supercomputer by the Top 500 organization. It is the second time that a Chinese supercomputer has been named the world’s fastest.

It’s great that the Chinese are becoming more competitive, Argonne National Lab Director Eric Isaacs said at the dedication event. “But it’s also a real threat,” he said in the VOA video. “We’re seeing China more often taking that lead role of … having the fastest computer in the world.”

Many in the HPC community have criticized Congress and other leaders for not dedicating enough resources for the U.S. to lead the world in exascale computing. While the U.S. still develops the best technology, it lacks the financial commitment and the human leadership necessary to keep pace with the exascale efforts of other nations, the Exascale Report recently said.

The prosperity of the U.S. is tied in part to supercomputing, Sen. Durbin said. “There’s a competition in this world not just for jobs for but basic research that can be applied to the private sector and the public sector, and of course the world of supercomputing is where many of those battles are being fought,” he said in the video

With 8.5 petaflops of continuous performance, Mira is the fifth fastest supercomputer in the world. The 786,000-core cluster is run on behalf of the United States Department of Energy, with funding partially coming from the National Science Foundation. The system will be used for scientific research, including material science, climatology, seismology, and computational chemistry. 

While it dropped from third place to fifth place on the Top 500 in the last year, Mira still leads the world of supercomputers in one category: energy efficiency. The system consumes just 3.9 megawatts of electricity, thanks in large part to a liquid cooling system. Instead of using fans, Mira’s processor nodes dissipate heat using chilled water that flows through copper tubes.

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