How ASCI Revolutionized the World of High-Performance Computing and Advanced Modeling and Simulation

By Alex R. Larzelere

November 9, 2018

As part of our editorial coverage of the 30th anniversary of SC, we present this retrospective piece on the barrier-breaking ASCI program by HPCwire Policy Editor Alex Larzelere, senior fellow at the U.S. Council on Competitiveness.

The 1993 Supercomputing Conference in Portland, Ore., provided a snapshot of the uncertainty that U.S. supercomputing faced in the early 1990s. Many exhibitors would soon be gone, either bankrupt or acquired, companies such as DEC, Thinking Machines, Kendall Square Research, nCube, MasPar and even the venerable Cray Research. This was because the direction of supercomputing technology was uncertain. It was clear that existing vector symmetric multi-processor systems were approaching their limits, but what would come next? There was some hope that Massively Parallel Processing (MPP) computing offered a potential solution. However, there were many different architecture ideas and it was not clear which one would dominate.

This was also a time of uncertainty for the United States as it entered the post-Cold War era. The Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union had collapsed. This had a huge impact on the Department of Energy (DOE) and its national laboratories who were responsible for the development and stewardship of U.S. nuclear weapons. To compound that uncertainty, in late 1992 President George H. W. Bush declared a moratorium on U.S. underground nuclear testing. This was later extended by President Bill Clinton and eventually became the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This meant that not only were the national labs concerned about their ongoing mission, but they had also lost their primary means of understanding the behaviors of nuclear weapons.

However, starting in 1994, things started to change. In a small set of offices in the basement of the DOE Forrestal Building, a small group of federal employees guided by Vic Reis and Gil Weigand, with their counterparts at Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia national lab, started to put together what would become the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI). Later it was renamed the Advanced Simulation and Computing (ASC) program. By the end of the decade, this program would grow to over $700 million/year and would revolutionize the world of supercomputing and advanced modeling and simulation. Many other programs and research activities would make significant contributions, but in the late 1990s and early 2000s, ASCI provided critical leadership.

ASCI was part of a DOE strategy called Science Based Stockpile Stewardship. This program developed the means to provide confidence in the performance, safety, and reliability of nuclear weapons in the absence of underground testing. This strategy involved conducting enhanced surveillance of the weapons, building large experimental facilities, and creating unprecedented levels of high resolution, high fidelity, multi-physics modeling and simulation capabilities that could confidently predict weapon behaviors. This last element was the domain of ASCI.

To achieve its goal, ASCI was required to tackle the full range of supercomputing technology challenges. One of the most visible elements of ASCI was the procurement of computational hardware. This led to the manufacturing of ASCI Red that was the world’s first teraflops computer. Subsequent platforms include the ASCI Blues, White, Q, Purple, and Roadrunner, the first petaflops computer, and most recently Sierra, a 122-petaflops Linpack system. An important result of ASCI was the revitalization of the U.S. supercomputing industry.

However, the stockpile stewardship mission of ASCI required more than just buying powerful platforms. ASCI needed to produce the programming models, tools, and libraries to enable the development of modeling and simulation applications. ASCI also built user environments to allow scientists to apply the capabilities to nuclear weapons. These environments included storage systems, networks, and visualization tools. ASCI also funded fundamental research in hardware, mathematics, and computer science. An important element of ASCI was the development of verification, validation, and uncertainty quantification methodologies. ASCI also funded university-based projects to develop non-classified advanced computing applications.

The list of ASCI’s contributions is too long for this short history. Perhaps the most important lesson from ASCI is its comprehensive approach. ASCI did not develop everything that was needed, but the program made sure that it was available when it was needed. Driven by its urgent mission of national importance, ASCI assumed the responsibility for the end to end integration and balance of the entire computational system. In this sense, ASCI provides a great example of true co-design.

Editor’s note: For a deeply researched, highly readable accounting of the ASCI program, including a rich collection of historic photographs, see Alex Larzelere’s 200-page report: Delivering Insight–The History of the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI) [PDF]

About the Author

Alex Larzelere is a senior fellow at the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, the president of Larzelere & Associates Consulting and HPCwire’s policy editor. He is currently a technologist, speaker and author on a number of disruptive technologies that include: advanced modeling and simulation; high performance computing; artificial intelligence; the Internet of Things; and additive manufacturing. Alex’s career has included time in federal service (working closely with DOE national labs), private industry, and as founder of a small business. Throughout that time, he led programs that implemented the use of cutting edge advanced computing technologies to enable high resolution, multi-physics simulations of complex physical systems. Alex is the author of “Delivering Insight: The History of the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI).”

Feature image caption: The ASCI Red system at Sandia, the world’s first teraflops computer.

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

2022 Road Trip: NASA Ames Takes Off

November 25, 2022

I left Dallas very early Friday morning after the conclusion of SC22. I had a race with the devil to get from Dallas to Mountain View, Calif., by Sunday. According to Google Maps, this 1,957 mile jaunt would be the longe Read more…

2022 Road Trip: Sandia Brain Trust Sounds Off

November 24, 2022

As the 2022 Great American Supercomputing Road Trip carries on, it’s Sandia’s turn. It was a bright sunny day when I rolled into Albuquerque after a high-speed run from Los Alamos National Laboratory. My interview su Read more…

2022 HPC Road Trip: Los Alamos

November 23, 2022

With SC22 in the rearview mirror, it’s time to get back to the 2022 Great American Supercomputing Road Trip. To refresh everyone’s memory, I jumped in the car on November 3rd and headed towards SC22 in Dallas, stoppi Read more…

Chipmakers Looking at New Architecture to Drive Computing Ahead

November 23, 2022

The ability to scale current computing designs is reaching a breaking point, and chipmakers such as Intel, Qualcomm and AMD are putting their brains together on an alternate architecture to push computing forward. The chipmakers are coalescing around the new concept of sparse computing, which involves bringing computing to data... Read more…

QuEra’s Quest: Build a Flexible Neutral Atom-based Quantum Computer

November 23, 2022

Last month, QuEra Computing began providing access to its 256-qubit, neutral atom-based quantum system, Aquila, from Amazon Braket. Founded in 2018, and built on technology developed at Harvard and MIT, QuEra, is one of Read more…

AWS Solution Channel

Shutterstock 1648511269

Avoid overspending with AWS Batch using a serverless cost guardian monitoring architecture

Pay-as-you-go resources are a compelling but daunting concept for budget conscious research customers. Uncertainty of cloud costs is a barrier-to-entry for most, and having near real-time cost visibility is critical. Read more…

 

shutterstock_1431394361

AI and the need for purpose-built cloud infrastructure

Modern AI solutions augment human understanding, preferences, intent, and even spoken language. AI improves our knowledge and understanding by delivering faster, more informed insights that fuel transformation beyond anything previously imagined. Read more…

SC22’s ‘HPC Accelerates’ Plenary Stresses Need for Collaboration

November 21, 2022

Every year, SC has a theme. For SC22 – held last week in Dallas – it was “HPC Accelerates”: a theme that conference chair Candace Culhane said reflected “how supercomputing is continuously changing the world by Read more…

Chipmakers Looking at New Architecture to Drive Computing Ahead

November 23, 2022

The ability to scale current computing designs is reaching a breaking point, and chipmakers such as Intel, Qualcomm and AMD are putting their brains together on an alternate architecture to push computing forward. The chipmakers are coalescing around the new concept of sparse computing, which involves bringing computing to data... Read more…

QuEra’s Quest: Build a Flexible Neutral Atom-based Quantum Computer

November 23, 2022

Last month, QuEra Computing began providing access to its 256-qubit, neutral atom-based quantum system, Aquila, from Amazon Braket. Founded in 2018, and built o Read more…

SC22’s ‘HPC Accelerates’ Plenary Stresses Need for Collaboration

November 21, 2022

Every year, SC has a theme. For SC22 – held last week in Dallas – it was “HPC Accelerates”: a theme that conference chair Candace Culhane said reflected Read more…

Quantum – Are We There (or Close) Yet? No, Says the Panel

November 19, 2022

For all of its politeness, a fascinating panel on the last day of SC22 – Quantum Computing: A Future for HPC Acceleration? – mostly served to illustrate the Read more…

RISC-V Is Far from Being an Alternative to x86 and Arm in HPC

November 18, 2022

One of the original RISC-V designers this week boldly predicted that the open architecture will surpass rival chip architectures in performance. "The prediction is two or three years we'll be surpassing your architectures and available performance with... Read more…

Gordon Bell Special Prize Goes to LLM-Based Covid Variant Prediction

November 17, 2022

For three years running, ACM has awarded not only its long-standing Gordon Bell Prize (read more about this year’s winner here!) but also its Gordon Bell Spec Read more…

2022 Gordon Bell Prize Goes to Plasma Accelerator Research

November 17, 2022

At the awards ceremony at SC22 in Dallas today, ACM awarded the 2022 ACM Gordon Bell Prize to a team of researchers who used four major supercomputers – inclu Read more…

Gordon Bell Nominee Used LLMs, HPC, Cerebras CS-2 to Predict Covid Variants

November 17, 2022

Large language models (LLMs) have taken the tech world by storm over the past couple of years, dominating headlines with their ability to generate convincing hu Read more…

Nvidia Shuts Out RISC-V Software Support for GPUs 

September 23, 2022

Nvidia is not interested in bringing software support to its GPUs for the RISC-V architecture despite being an early adopter of the open-source technology in its GPU controllers. Nvidia has no plans to add RISC-V support for CUDA, which is the proprietary GPU software platform, a company representative... Read more…

RISC-V Is Far from Being an Alternative to x86 and Arm in HPC

November 18, 2022

One of the original RISC-V designers this week boldly predicted that the open architecture will surpass rival chip architectures in performance. "The prediction is two or three years we'll be surpassing your architectures and available performance with... Read more…

AWS Takes the Short and Long View of Quantum Computing

August 30, 2022

It is perhaps not surprising that the big cloud providers – a poor term really – have jumped into quantum computing. Amazon, Microsoft Azure, Google, and th Read more…

Chinese Startup Biren Details BR100 GPU

August 22, 2022

Amid the high-performance GPU turf tussle between AMD and Nvidia (and soon, Intel), a new, China-based player is emerging: Biren Technology, founded in 2019 and headquartered in Shanghai. At Hot Chips 34, Biren co-founder and president Lingjie Xu and Biren CTO Mike Hong took the (virtual) stage to detail the company’s inaugural product: the Biren BR100 general-purpose GPU (GPGPU). “It is my honor to present... Read more…

Tesla Bulks Up Its GPU-Powered AI Super – Is Dojo Next?

August 16, 2022

Tesla has revealed that its biggest in-house AI supercomputer – which we wrote about last year – now has a total of 7,360 A100 GPUs, a nearly 28 percent uplift from its previous total of 5,760 GPUs. That’s enough GPU oomph for a top seven spot on the Top500, although the tech company best known for its electric vehicles has not publicly benchmarked the system. If it had, it would... Read more…

AMD Thrives in Servers amid Intel Restructuring, Layoffs

November 12, 2022

Chipmakers regularly indulge in a game of brinkmanship, with an example being Intel and AMD trying to upstage one another with server chip launches this week. But each of those companies are in different positions, with AMD playing its traditional role of a scrappy underdog trying to unseat the behemoth Intel... Read more…

JPMorgan Chase Bets Big on Quantum Computing

October 12, 2022

Most talk about quantum computing today, at least in HPC circles, focuses on advancing technology and the hurdles that remain. There are plenty of the latter. F Read more…

UCIe Consortium Incorporates, Nvidia and Alibaba Round Out Board

August 2, 2022

The Universal Chiplet Interconnect Express (UCIe) consortium is moving ahead with its effort to standardize a universal interconnect at the package level. The c Read more…

Leading Solution Providers

Contributors

Using Exascale Supercomputers to Make Clean Fusion Energy Possible

September 2, 2022

Fusion, the nuclear reaction that powers the Sun and the stars, has incredible potential as a source of safe, carbon-free and essentially limitless energy. But Read more…

Nvidia, Qualcomm Shine in MLPerf Inference; Intel’s Sapphire Rapids Makes an Appearance.

September 8, 2022

The steady maturation of MLCommons/MLPerf as an AI benchmarking tool was apparent in today’s release of MLPerf v2.1 Inference results. Twenty-one organization Read more…

Not Just Cash for Chips – The New Chips and Science Act Boosts NSF, DOE, NIST

August 3, 2022

After two-plus years of contentious debate, several different names, and final passage by the House (243-187) and Senate (64-33) last week, the Chips and Science Act will soon become law. Besides the $54.2 billion provided to boost US-based chip manufacturing, the act reshapes US science policy in meaningful ways. NSF’s proposed budget... Read more…

SC22 Unveils ACM Gordon Bell Prize Finalists

August 12, 2022

Courtesy of the schedule for the SC22 conference, we now have our first glimpse at the finalists for this year’s coveted Gordon Bell Prize. The Gordon Bell Pr Read more…

Intel Is Opening up Its Chip Factories to Academia

October 6, 2022

Intel is opening up its fabs for academic institutions so researchers can get their hands on physical versions of its chips, with the end goal of boosting semic Read more…

AMD Previews 400 Gig Adaptive SmartNIC SOC at Hot Chips

August 24, 2022

Fresh from finalizing its acquisitions of FPGA provider Xilinx (Feb. 2022) and DPU provider Pensando (May 2022) ), AMD previewed what it calls a 400 Gig Adaptive smartNIC SOC yesterday at Hot Chips. It is another contender in the increasingly crowded and blurry smartNIC/DPU space where distinguishing between the two isn’t always easy. The motivation for these device types... Read more…

Google Program to Free Chips Boosts University Semiconductor Design

August 11, 2022

A Google-led program to design and manufacture chips for free is becoming popular among researchers and computer enthusiasts. The search giant's open silicon program is providing the tools for anyone to design chips, which then get manufactured. Google foots the entire bill, from a chip's conception to delivery of the final product in a user's hand. Google's... Read more…

AMD’s Genoa CPUs Offer Up to 96 5nm Cores Across 12 Chiplets

November 10, 2022

AMD’s fourth-generation Epyc processor line has arrived, starting with the “general-purpose” architecture, called “Genoa,” the successor to third-gen Eypc Milan, which debuted in March of last year. At a launch event held today in San Francisco, AMD announced the general availability of the latest Epyc CPUs with up to 96 TSMC 5nm Zen 4 cores... Read more…

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
HPCwire