A new supercomputer, Frontier, has been widely touted as the world’s first exascale machine – but was it? Although Frontier, built by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, topped what is generally seen as the definitive list of supercomputers, others may already have achieved the milestone in secret.
What is an exascale computer, and why is it important?
Exascale is a term used to describe the arrival of machines that can carry out a billion operations per second. Exascale has long been a target for manufacturers seeking ever higher performance, as a round number often is.
Today, supercomputers are vital in carrying out a wide range of scientific research, running extensive simulations of everything from nuclear physics to the effects of drugs, and even training artificial intelligence models. They are also used to mine data and look for patterns. The most powerful machine can give academics, companies or governments an edge.
Who tracks the world’s most powerful supercomputers?
The definitive list of supercomputers is the Top500, based on a single measurement: how fast a machine can solve vast numbers of equations by running software called the LINPACK benchmarks. This gives a value in float-point operations per second or FLOPS.
But even Jack Dongarra at Top500 admits that not every supercomputer is listed and will only feature if its owner runs the benchmarks and submits a result. “If they don’t send it in, it doesn’t get entered,” he says. “I can’t force them.”
Why would owners not want to be listed?
Some owners prefer not to release a benchmark figure or publicly reveal a machine’s existence. Simon McIntosh-Smith at the University of Bristol, UK, points out that not only do intelligence agencies and certain companies have an incentive to keep their machines secret, but some purely academic machines like Blue Waters, operated by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are also just never entered.
Blue Waters project director Bill Kramer said in 2012 that the Top500 list was “interesting at some point, a while ago, but that now in some ways may be detriment to the community”.