Researchers to Harness America’s First Exascale Supercomputer in Summer 2022

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It will be used to pinpoint new patterns in patient data for precision medicine—and more.

Select researchers will soon gain access to America's earliest exascale supercomputer, Frontier, which is poised to offer modeling and simulation capabilities at the very highest level of computing performance next year.

“Frontier is a first-of-its-kind system and it requires a thoughtful, deliberate process to bring a machine of its magnitude online,” Justin Whitt, program director for the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility where the machine will be based, told Nextgov on Wednesday. “Thanks to the hard work and dedication of our world-class team, we’re exactly where we thought we’d be when we put the plan in place two years ago.”

Exascale systems are at the heart of the next generation of high performance supercomputing. 

The big and powerful tools will perform a quintillion operations per second. According to Whitt, they are expected to “more realistically simulate the processes involved in scientific discovery and national security,” such as those associated with regional climate, additive manufacturing, “the conversion of plants to biofuels, the relationship between energy and water use, the unseen physics in materials discovery and design, and fundamental forces of the universe, and myriad others.”

In 2019, the Energy Department announced that it would be procuring Frontier from supercomputer manufacturer HPE Cray and chipmaker AMD for the Tennessee-based Oak Ridge National Laboratory via a contract worth roughly $600 million. 

Aside from Frontier, exascale systems are being built at other labs, including Lawrence Livermore and Argonne National Labs. The system set for the latter was originally slated to be the first functioning exascale in the U.S., but delays in the manufacturing process resulted in Frontier’s deployment leading the pack. 

Officials at Oak Ridge had to steer what’s been deemed the largest, most comprehensive upgrade in their lab’s history to make room for the massive machine. Its components take up space that matches two football fields.

The lab confirmed this fall that Frontier was being delivered.

This week, Whitt told Nextgov that its delivery began in August and was complete by the end of October. Now, installation and integration processes are underway.

“Some early users will get access to Frontier this summer to help harden the system for full user operations on Jan. 1, 2023,” he noted.

Aside from enabling next-level modeling and simulations, Whitt added, the supercomputer will also provide the lab with “unprecedented opportunities to utilize artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques for issues of global importance, like discovering new patterns in patient data for precision medicine uncovering the origins of disease, shedding light on new properties of materials, and advancing research in high-energy physics.”

The department’s Exascale Computing Program has been a crucial element helping Frontier become fully realized.

“ECP brought together researchers from DOE labs, universities, and vendors to tackle many aspects of the exascale challenge,” Whitt said. “ECP is delivering software and scientific applications that will be essential to a researcher’s productivity on Frontier.”