ROCHESTER, MINN. – The world’s newest supercomputer, one capable of a record-setting 200 quadrillion calculations per second, was built with the help of a team from this southeast Minnesota city.
The Summit supercomputer from IBM won a competition last week in Germany that named it the world’s fastest, a title that has eluded U.S. computer manufacturers since 2012.
Expectations were high for the machine, said Ryan Paske, a senior technical staff member at IBM’s Rochester office.
“We knew that it would be one of the fastest at the time,” he said. “Obviously the goal was Number 1.”
The development of Summit took place across multiple IBM locations, but the Rochester office helped design the computer’s water-cooling system and other pieces critical to its development.
The computer is so cutting-edge that most of its parts didn’t exist when it was first requested by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2014, said Paske. Now being installed at the department’s Oak Ridge Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., the computer will help scientists do everything from predicting the weather to combating cancer, said Andy Schram, a high performance computing executive at IBM.
“I think you’ll find interesting breakthroughs that we can’t even predict today,” Schram said.
The computing power of a machine like Summit allows scientists to study how drugs interact with an individual’s DNA, or model the weather down to every square mile on the planet, he said.
IBM’s supercomputer history
The Rochester IBM office has worked on several of the world’s fastest machines, helping develop Roadrunner in 2008 for Los Alamos National Laboratory and Blue Gene Sequoia in 2012, a computer still considered the eighth fastest in the world.
“This is not new to us, but it’s something that many Minnesotans may or may not realize: that we do supercomputers down here in Rochester,” said Schram.
The machines were typically custom projects for tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars, and in recent years IBM had started to back away from the industry, said Schram. There weren’t enough customers to justify working on them.
But when the Department of Energy started asking for bids in 2014 for a pair of supercomputers, one for Oak Ridge and a second for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, IBM partnered with Nvidia, Mellanox and Red Hat to submit a bid. The team at Rochester IBM helped integrate the pieces into a single machine.
The computer developed for the Department of Energy was named Summit. The computer that was sent to Lawrence Livermore, Sierra, has been named the world’s third fastest.
Summit is the size of two tennis courts, with 4,608 of IBM’s AC922 servers stacked into row upon row of towers. It’s wired together by 185 miles of high-speed fiber optic cable. It could store 74 years’ worth of hi-def video. It weighs 340 tons and uses a water cooling system to keep it from overheating.
A highly specialized field, the supercomputer world is dominated by a handful of countries. In addition to the U.S., there’s China, Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany and France.
As impressive as Summit is, Schram said computer engineers already are looking for the next holy grail in computing: the exaflop. A measurement of processing speed, 1 exaflop equals 1 billion billion calculations per second.
Schram said he expects that to happen within three to four years.