BlueGene/L Supercomputer in Livermore, Calif.
BlueGene/L Supercomputer in Livermore, Calif. Reuters

The U.S. Department of Energy, along with chip makers Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices, is working on building the world's fastest supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee. The current world leader is in China, and the U.S.'s fastest machine, named Jaguar, will now get an upgrade using the graphics chips Nvidia first popularized in high end video gaming systems.

The upgrade will transform the Jaguar Cray XT5 system, currently capable of 2.3 million billion calculations per second (petaflops), into a Cray XK6 system with a peak speed between 10 and 20 petaflops. Titan, as the new supercomputer will be called, uses the graphics chips (GPU's) because they are energy-efficient processors that accelerate specific types of calculations in scientific application codes. The last phase of the upgrade is expected to be completed in late 2012 and should be ready in early 2013.

These Tesla GPUs are able to perform many more calculations for the same amount of power as conventional microprocessors and will work hand-in-hand with CPUs to deliver new levels of energy-efficient application acceleration, ORNL Director Thom Mason said.

With 299,008 cores and 600 terabytes of memory for problem solving, the computer experiments that will run on the system will focus on energy and research. Titan's simulation projects will include the commercially viable production of biofuels and biomaterials from switchgrass and poplar trees. Another project investigates combustion, responsible for most energy use, to burn fuels cleanly in efficient engines.

Simulations will aid the development of new materials for photocells that will convert more sunlight into electricity and new battery technology to store that energy for use when the sun isn't shining. Additionally, Titan's users will study safe extension of the lifecycles of nuclear power plants and the reactions and flow of contaminants in the ground as well as the impacts of energy use on climate.

All of these areas of science will benefit from Titan's enormous increase in computational power, Mason said. Titan will allow for significantly greater realism in models and simulations and the resulting scientific breakthroughs and technological innovations will provide the return on this national investment. Discoveries that take weeks even on a system as powerful as Jaguar might take days on Titan.

As one of the first deployments of the latest generation of AMD Opteron processors, the upgrade delivers one-third more cores in the same physical space compared with Jaguar while also doubling the memory and outfitting the system with Cray's powerful Gemini network to improve performance on scientific applications. The upgrade is supported by funding from DOE's Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the Unites States.

Additional information about Titan is available on the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility website.