“It is my privilege to welcome you to the dedication of Frontier, the supercomputer that broke the exascale barrier.” That was the introduction by Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thomas Zacharia, at a small, public event on August 17 to officially dedicate the supercomputer, which in May became the first system to achieve over 1.0 exaflops of 64-bit performance on the HPL benchmark, which determines system rankings on the prestigious, semi-annual Top500 list. The unveiling was a crowning achievement for ORNL and the U.S. Department of Energy.
Due to Covid-19 precautions, the in-person event was fully masked and strictly limited to 50 attendees, including a long list of honored speakers and guests. (The event was also livestreamed to a broader audience.) In addition to Zacharia, speakers at the event included:
- ORNL Site Office Manager Johnny Moore
- DOE Deputy Secretary David Turk
- DOE Office of Science Director Asmeret Asefaw Berhe
- HPE President and CEO Antonio Neri
- AMD President and CEO Lisa Su
Barb Helland, DOE Facilities Division Director, also had a seat of honor and was recognized with thanks by multiple speakers – Berhe called her “a tireless champion of advanced computing” – as was Frank Rose, Principal Deputy Administrator at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The event was also attended by U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally.
“We have come together to celebrate what Frontier represents,” said Zacharia, “a new era of supercomputing that will empower scientists to solve bigger, more complex problems than ever before, faster than ever before, for solutions in energy, materials, medicine, national security, and economic competitiveness.” Zacharia pointed out that Frontier is the fourth consecutive supercomputing installation at ORNL to debut at number one on the Top500 list, comparing the achievement to a sports championship dynasty.
“Not everything in life is a competition, but it’s good to be number one,” quipped Turk, to great applause. Turk expanded on the consistent, bipartisan political support of the DOE as a key enabler of the ongoing achievement. “What it gives us is the opportunity – and I’d say, the responsibility – for us to be on the cutting edge, for the U.S. to be in that leadership spot. It makes me feel good as an American. … I think the vast majority of people in the world like to see the U.S. in that leadership role and depend on us to be in that leadership role, with the values we bring to the table, with the sense of responsibility that we bring to the table.”
That statement was a not-so-veiled allusion to both Russia and China, the latter of which has become a rival to the U.S. and Japan for supercomputing supremacy. The patriotic event at ORNL conveniently ignored any mention of China’s exascale systems – at least two of them to date – which have been well-documented, but not benchmarked on HPL (at least not publicly) nor submitted for inclusion in the Top500, leaving the “official” podium for America’s taking. While a celebration of achievement is certainly in order, some of the day’s statements strained against this reality. “This is the first time ever … certainly in human history … that humanity, that sentient beings, have achieved exascale computing,” said Turk.
Political chest-thumping aside, the event trumpeted Frontier not only for the milestone it surpassed – Frontier actually clocked 1.1 exaflops on HPL, 100 petaflops over the mark – but also, and more importantly, for the scientific research it will enable. The day’s talks heralded new breakthroughs across the broad range of domains spanned by the DOE Office of Science.
“As a scientist who has been working in climate change for pretty much my whole career, I’m particularly excited to see how the Energy Exascale Earth System Model will be able to transform our understanding of several key earth system processes, and in particular, help us understand our changing climate with the urgency that’s needed,” said Berhe. “Climate modeling at exascale will deliver models at unprecedented levels of resolution, informing climate solutions that we will need at regional and national as well as global scales.”
Berhe went on to say that work is already underway on Frontier at exascale levels to understand new Covid variants, as well as to research advanced materials to benefit diverse areas such as medicine, transportation, and smart buildings. Berhe also noted the energy efficiency of Frontier itself as being consistent with the DOE mission.
Both HPE and AMD were regularly acknowledged for the development and delivery of the core technologies for Frontier. “I cannot imagine a better partner than Antonio [Neri] and Lisa [Su] in deploying the world’s first exascale supercomputer,” said Zacharia.
“For me, as a leader of a company that has a clear purpose to advance the way we live and work, this is what progress is,” said Neri, in giving his thanks to ORNL and the DOE.
“This type of milestone … is only possible with extraordinary collaboration,” said Su. “First there is the vision that Thomas and the entire Oak Ridge team had, and then there is the execution. … We couldn’t do this without this strong vision and support. It is an example of the best that public-private partnership can possibly do.”
Following the talks, media members were taken on a tour of Frontier and its 74 HPE Cray EX cabinets, led by Gina Tourassi, Division Director of Computational Sciences at ORNL, and Justin Whitt, Program Director at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility (OLCF) at ORNL.
ORNL, HPE, and AMD overcame multiple hurdles, including significant delays due to supply chain disruptions, to deploy and benchmark Frontier ahead of the May 2022 Top500 announcement. The achievement of exascale in time for the Top500 list was a great relief to ORNL and OLCF staff, according to Tourassi.
Full system acceptance of Frontier is still forthcoming, according to Whitt. Nevertheless, the much-deserved feeling of achievement was palpable at ORNL. “On the morning of May 26, when Frontier broke exascale, history was made again on this campus,” said Zacharia. “It’s an amazing day for science. It’s an amazing day for the nation.”
Photo credits: Addison Snell