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IBM Summit: The US’s Best Chance to Retake Supercomputer Crown

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With the promise of a 10x performance jump over earlier systems, the IBM Summit — built around Power9, NVIDIA, and Mellanox technology — is the U.S.'s near-term greatest hope to take back the supercomputer lead. China has boasted the world's fastest computer for some time. Summit was expected to nearly double the performance of the fastest Chinese supercomputer, Sunway TaihuLight. Apparently, Summit has exceeded expectations.

It fascinates me that once again IBM is the lead U.S. company fighting for technological leadership on a nation-state scale. This is the way it was back in the 1980s when I entered the tech segment and went to work for the company.

I think leadership in this area continues to be important.

First: Specifications

Given that supercomputer-level performance evolves into desktop performance after a decade or so, Summit's specifications set an impressively high bar. It’ll do 200 petaflops; in other words, if everyone in the world did one calculation per second for a year, they’d do the work Summit can do in one second. It’ll do 3 exaops of artificial intelligence (AI), which means if we all did those same calculations every second, we’d need to work 15 years to do what Summit can do in a second. Compared to a current generation PC working on genomics, it would take 30 years for a PC to do what Summit could do in an hour.

It weighs about as much as a commercial jet and covers two tennis courts. (I’m guessing there will be no laptop version of Summit). This is one big, expensive, powerful computer.

The Importance of the Summit

Supercomputers carry much of the heavy lifting when it comes to science and, increasingly, in defense as well. This is the class of computer that is used to identify and model existential threats, weather, the universe around us and micro-universes we can’t see. They are focused on proving or disproving theories, calculating complex trajectories (like space missions to other planets) and likely will be instrumental in assuring the survival of our species.

Projects already lined up for Summit include the following:

  • Cancer Research: The National Cancer Institute and the Department of Energy are creating a program called Cancer Distributed Learning Environment (CANDLE). This effort is looking for currently hidden relationships among the various disease factors.
  • Fusion Energy: Fusion has been kind of the Holy Grail when it comes to energy generation. It powers the sun, and it could be incredibly efficient and clean. Summit will be used to model a fusion reactor and its unique magnetic containment system in order to bring this critical energy source to market.
  • Disease and Addiction: Summit will be used to model and analyze patterns in the function and evolution of the human body. These will be used to analyze and hopefully cure problems like drug addiction and diseases like Alzheimer’s improving the related drug discovery process.

Speed is incredibly important because whoever has the fastest supercomputer will likely have a competitive advantage at a nation-state level. Having the fastest system gave China an important (and, for us, embarrassing) technological lead. Taking that lead back as the U.S. did today with Summit is perhaps one of the most important positive things happening this year.

This isn’t just a 10x jump on earlier U.S. computers like Titan. Thanks to improvements in coding, scientists think they’ll be able to achieve more like a 15x jump on Titan, which would give the U.S. some extra breathing room against China (which, most certainly, is working on a response).

Survival of the Species

Computers in this class aim to answer the truly big and critical questions. Understanding weather patterns, finding potential threats approaching us in space or due to changes we’ve made in our environment, and finding paths to more advanced energy systems and medical solutions are all part of a day’s work for a supercomputer. Machines like Summit might not only define which country truly leads in technology but assure the survival of that country and its citizens as well. This is why these efforts are so incredibly important and why it is noteworthy that the U.S. again has the performance lead.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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