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The unending race to make the fastest supercomputer

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Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory may once again be home to the world’s fastest supercomputer. It held the title in 2012, but only kept it for six months — then a computer in China took the top spot. But the U.S. recently put aside more than $400 million to stay in the race.

The supercomputer at Oak Ridge, called Titan, is the size of a basketball court and sounds like a jet engine. It can make 27 quadrillion — that’s 27 followed by 15 zeros — calculations per second.

“It’s almost like it’s alive,” says Buddy Bland, director of the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility. “It has a pulse to it. You can feel it in your body when you walk in the room.”

These kinds of machines are used to do incredibly complex simulations of real-world things, such as analyzing weather patterns over time or predicting new chemical combinations in drugs. Faster computers mean more scientific breakthroughs.

Like any computer, whether it’s a Titan or your personal laptop, it will be basically obsolete in a few years, Bland says.

“Because we can go out and buy a new machine for less than it costs to pay the maintenance of the old machine,” he says.

The U.S. has been a leader in supercomputing for decades, and staying up-to-date and ahead of the pack is pricy. Oak Ridge’s next computer, called Summit, could cost up to $280 million.

Yet Congress has funded supercomputing with gusto. In November, the Department of Energy pledged $425 million to help build Summit and a computer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., says it’s a priority that stretches across party lines.

“This is a case where the Obama administration and I and others in Congress since 2008 have had the same goal: We wanted double funding for supercomputing,” he says.

Alexander gives two reasons: First, national security — some federally funded machines manage the country’s nuclear weapons.

Second, private companies can apply for time on the computers to develop products more quickly. For example, Procter and Gamble has used Oak Ridge’s Titan to research how  skin might react to its products.

And then there’s something that has nonmonetary value: pride.

“It’s like being number one in football,” Alexander says. “We like the idea of having the fastest supercomputer in the world, and we have had that at Oak Ridge.”

Summit is expected to go live in 2017, but Oak Ridge isn’t calling it the fastest yet — by that time, some other country may be building one that’s even faster.


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