Sunday, December 3, 2023

What does it mean to be No. 1? Ask the scientists behind Frontier supercomputer at ORNL

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It triumphed despite a pandemic and historic disruptions to the global supply chain, achieving a feat so great that some of the world’s leading scientists have called it a “miracle.” It has accelerated discoveries into the universe, the human body and the tiniest of subatomic particles.

Now, even as powerful new supercomputers have come online, Frontier at Oak Ridge National Laboratory is still the world’s fastest for the fourth time in a row and has established itself as a vital chapter in the lab’s 80-year story.

The $600 million, 296-ton machine built by Hewlett Packard Enterprise and chip manufacturer AMD debuted in May 2022, breaking what the high performance computing world calls the exascale barrier with over one quintillion calculations in a single second.

Just as the Top500, a list that tracks the fastest supercomputers, announced Frontier had yet again topped its biannual ranking, the Department of Energy announced a record number of science teams that will use its most powerful machines, including Frontier, in 2024. It’s the first full year Frontier will be open to users around the world.

The department owns both Frontier and Aurora, a newer and larger supercomputer at Argonne National Laboratory that failed to take the No. 1 spot on the November list.

After months of troubleshooting following its installation in June, the team behind Aurora reported the speed of only half its system. By the time it fully opens to scientists in 2024, Aurora is expected to unseat Frontier with two quintillion calculations per second.

To scientists like Bronson Messer, director of science at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, it’s not so much the No. 1 spot that matters, but the scientific breakthroughs Frontier will unlock.

It’s still a good feeling to be on top, especially as he and his colleagues attended the annual International Conference for High Performance Computing in Denver from Nov. 12-17.

“There is value in being No. 1,” Messer told Knox News. “By being No. 1, we are attracting proposals from some of the most preeminent computational science teams in the world. Getting to choose from that pool is not wholly dependent upon us being No. 1, but it certainly helps.”

Scientists from around the world who apply to use Frontier must be looking to solve a big problem requiring a big simulation or model. They can use the system for free as long as they publish their findings for others to see.

They also get the bragging rights of having worked on the world’s fastest supercomputer. In the relatively small world of high performance computing, Frontier and the team who run it stand out.

“We’re pretty easily recognizable,” Messer said from Denver, where 14,000 computational scientists gathered. “Even if we took our name tags off, we’d still be recognizable.”

Record number of scientists will use Frontier in 2024

A record 59 teams of scientists will run their projects on Frontier in 2024, totaling close to 40 million node hours. A node hour measures how much time a team uses Frontier for each of its 9,400 nodes. If a team needed 100 hours using 8,000 nodes, for instance, they would need 800,000 node hours.

Several teams were awarded up to one million node hours next year to answer questions ranging from how Alzheimer’s disease affects the brain to how buildings can better withstand the power of an earthquake.

Frontier is so fast and has so much storage it can simulate an earthquake or the formation of a galaxy or how viruses and bacteria multiply in the body.

In 2024, several teams will use it to train complex artificial intelligence models that could detect anomalies in a giant data set or scan through an entire library of scientific articles.

“Frontier is a unique scientific instrument, but it is catholic in its purview,” Messer said. “It can do almost any kind of science.”

The statistic that makes Messer the most proud is the volume of large projects using Frontier. In the past few months, he estimates 80% of projects have used the bulk of the machine. Summit, Frontier’s predecessor and the No. 7 fastest in the world, only runs these largest of projects about 45% of the time.

“People really are using Frontier at the very limits of its capability, which is exactly what we want,” Messer said. “We want people to use it in big chunks. Their excitement about being able to do that is palpable.”

US maintains supercomputing power at critical time

What does it mean for the U.S. that the federal government owns the two fastest computers in the world?

At a time when President Biden has pushed the U.S. to boost domestic manufacturing of semiconductors and chips to compete with Chinese supercomputing power, it is a significant sign of American scientific prowess, Messer said.

While 161 of the 500 supercomputers on the Top500 list are in the U.S., up from 150 in June, China’s share sank from 134 to 104. It’s possible that China is withholding data on its most powerful supercomputers. As Messer put it, any nation has the choice to submit data or not.

The Department of Energy opens its supercomputers to teams of scientists from across the world. Their projects do not have to advance U.S. national interests.

Scientists from the department’s list of “sensitive countries,” which includes China and Iran, would have a difficult or impossible time getting to use the supercomputers, Messer said.

“I am not terribly concerned if China has a bigger exascale computer than we do or a comparable exascale computer than we do, because Frontier is making a real impact on science every day and I think that’s really the gold standard,” Messer said.

Daniel Dassow is a growth and development reporter focused on technology and energy. Phone 423-637-0878. Email

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