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Reaching the “Summit” of Computing Power

The US has just launched the world's most powerful supercomputer.

For the first time since November 2012, the US possesses the most powerful supercomputer in the world. (1) On June 8th, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory unveiled the Summit supercomputer. Built by IBM, Summit has a performance of 200 petaflops, meaning it can perform 200,000 trillion calculations per second. Summit can compute in 1 hour what would take the average desktop computer 30 years to complete! (2) For comparison, the next most powerful supercomputer, China’s TaihuLight, has a performance of only 93 petaflops, less than half that of Summit. (3)

With great power comes great responsibilities and costs. Summit is reported to have a price tag of about $200 million. This massive machine takes up 5,600 square feet (or two tennis courts) of floor space and weighs 340 tons. It uses enough fiber optic cables to stretch from New York to Baltimore. (4) It requires more than 4,000 gallons of water a minute to stay cool. (6) So, it’s not exactly something that will be sold at Best Buy anytime soon.

Image from Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Why is Summit important?

At Summit’s launch, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said, “[Summit]’s going to have a profound impact in energy research, scientific discovery, economic competitiveness and national security.” (2) Basically, supercomputers are useful for anything involving immense amounts of data. Summit’s file system can store 250 petabytes of data, which is equivalent to 74 years of high-definition video. (5) Processing colossal amounts of data like this takes a long time. One way Summit has sped up data processing is by minimizing data movement. Instead of the CPU being in one place and the data in another, GPUs and CPUs were combined, reducing the distance data has to travel. (5)

Another part of what makes Summit unique is its ability to run machine learning techniques, making it not just the most powerful supercomputer, but the smartest one. The increased ability for the integration of AI with scientific discovery is made possible by the use of “more than 27,000 NVIDIA Volta GPUs with more than 9,000 IBM Power9 CPUs.” (5) Summit’s high amount of computing power allows AI to be trained much more quickly than it was previously, making AI more feasible for use in research. (6) AI will likely prove essential for solving many of science’s mysteries, so Summit’s emphasis on AI is very important.

Image from Oak Ridge National Laboratory

What will Summit be used for?

Obviously, the power offered by Summit can be applied to a wide variety of disciplines. Some of the early science projects set to be done with Summit have already been released.

One project will use Summit to simulate supernovas. This project has been done on previous supercomputers, but Summit will allow “scenarios several thousand times longer and tracking about 12 times more elements than past projects,” which allows for very high-resolution models. The study of supernovas is important because it provides details on how heavy elements, such as gold and iron, develop in the universe.

Summit will also be used in the development of new materials. Developing new materials, such as compounds for energy storage, require a subatomic understanding of how that matter behaves. Previously, researchers were only able to simulate tens of atoms, but with Summit, they can simulate hundreds of atoms. This improvement will help with the search for a better superconductor, a conductor that conducts energy with no loss of efficiency.

Another project will apply machine learning and AI to genetic and biomedical datasets to develop a better understanding of human health. ORNL will use clinical and genomic data obtained from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to identify the genetic factors that contribute to certain health conditions, such as opioid addictions. A similar project involves cancer surveillance and using machine learning algorithms to read unstructured data about cancer patients and create a comprehensive view of the U.S. cancer population. Finding patterns in health problems like these will help with the treatment of them. (7)

These projects illustrate the variety of ways Summit will make an impact on scientific research in the near future. None of these projects would have been possible with previous technology, as the amount of data that must be processed for them is simply too large.

Image from Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Who gets to use Summit?

Researchers must undergo an application process to have access to the machine. In 2019, most Summit users will be research teams chosen through the Department of Energy’s Innovative and Novel Computational Impact on Theory and Experiment (INCITE) program. (2) The Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility (OLCF) will be holding a variety of training events over the next few months to teach users how to use the computer and allow research to get off to a smooth start. (8)

What comes next?

It has only been a decade since supercomputers reached the petascale, yet Summit has already reached 200 petaflops. (2) However, Summit does not even come close to reaching the true “summit” of computing power. The next goal for engineers is to reach the “exascale” level of computing, meaning supercomputers that perform a billion billion calculations per second. And yes, that is “billion” written twice. China plans to reach the exascale level by 2020, and the US has planned to reach that landmark by 2021. (9) Whether or not this goal is actually achieved remains to be seen, but supercomputers will undoubtedly continue to advance in astonishing ways.


(1) Strohmaier, Erich, et al. “June 2018.” TOP500, Prometeus GmbH, June 2018, http://www.top500.org/lists/2018/06/.

(2) “Oak Ridge National Laboratory Launches America’s New Top Supercomputer for Science.” Energy.gov, U.S. Department of Energy, 8 June 2018, http://www.energy.gov/articles/oak-ridge-national-laboratory-launches-america-s-new-top-supercomputer-science.

(3) Feldman, Michael. “China Tops Supercomputer Rankings with New 93-Petaflop Machine.” TOP500, Prometeus GmbH, 20 June 2016, http://www.top500.org/news/china-tops-supercomputer-rankings-with-new-93-petaflop-machine/.

(4) Axelrod, Josh, and Saeed Ahmed. “This Computer Can Do More Calculations per Second than the World’s Population Could Do in a Year.” CNN, Cable News Network, 9 June 2018, http://www.cnn.com/2018/06/09/world/supercomputer-summit-america-china-trnd/index.html.

(5) “Summit.” Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, U.S. Department of Energy, http://www.olcf.ornl.gov/summit/.

(6) Rosenfield, Michael. “We’Ve Reached the Summit: Introducing the World’s Smartest, Most Powerful Supercomputer.” IBM, IBM Corporation, 14 June 2018, http://www.ibm.com/blogs/research/2018/06/summit/.

(7) “ORNL Launches Summit Supercomputer.” Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, 8 June 2018, http://www.ornl.gov/news/ornl-launches-summit-supercomputer.

(8) Harken, Rachel. “OLCF Readies Users for Summit.” Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, U.S. Department of Energy, 26 June 2018, http://www.olcf.ornl.gov/2018/06/26/olcf-readies-users-for-summit/.

(9) Simonite, Tom. “The US Again Has the World’s Most Powerful Supercomputer.” Wired, Conde Nast, 8 June 2018, http://www.wired.com/story/the-us-again-has-worlds-most-powerful-supercomputer/.

Images: “Summit.” Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, U.S. Department of Energy, http://www.olcf.ornl.gov/summit/.

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