Information technology and applied science engineering play an essential role in society, from improving decision-making to advancing humanity’s knowledge of the world and the universe. Supercomputing, or high-performance computing (HPC), enables scientists and engineers to push the edge of what is possible for US science and innovation. Using HPC-based modeling and simulation, they are able to study systems that otherwise would be impractical or impossible to investigate in the real world due to their complexity, size, dangerousness, or fleeting nature.
Applying the leading-edge capabilities of HPC-based modeling and simulation is essential to the execution of US Department of Energy (DOE) missions in science and engineering and to DOE’s responsibility for stewardship of the nation’s nuclear stockpile. To address threats to security and future challenges in economic impact areas, the United States is making a strategic move in HPC—a grand convergence of advances in co-design, modeling and simulation, data analytics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. The success of this convergence hinges on achieving exascale, the next leap forward in computing.
The exponential increase in memory, storage, and compute power made possible by exascale systems will drive breakthroughs in energy production, storage, and transmission; materials science; additive manufacturing; chemical design; artificial intelligence and machine learning; cancer research and treatment; earthquake risk assessment; and many other areas.
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The fastest supercomputers in the world today solve problems at the petascale; that is 1 quadrillion (1015) operations each second. While these petascale systems are quite powerful, the next milestone in computing achievement, exascale, will be transformative because of the degree of problem-solving capability it will enable—and the benefits in our everyday lives will be far-reaching.
In the most basic sense, exascale is 1,000 times faster and more powerful than petascale. Exascale computing refers to the capability to perform a billion billion (a quintillion) operations per second. The Greek prefix “exa” means 1,000 multiplied by itself 6 times. Exascale is denoted as 1018, or as 1 followed by 18 zeros.
At a quintillion operations per second, exascale computers will more realistically simulate the processes involved in scientific discovery and national security such as precision medicine, 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.
The DOE-led Exascale Computing Initiative (ECI), a partnership between two DOE organizations, the Office of Science (SC) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), was formed in 2016 to accelerate research, development, acquisition, and deployment projects to deliver exascale computing capability to the DOE laboratories by the early to mid 2020s.
The ECI consists of three main components: (1) SC and NNSA computer facility site preparation investments, (2) computer vendor nonrecurring engineering activities needed for the delivery of exascale systems within this time frame, and (3) the Exascale Computing Project (ECP), which was launched in 2016 and brings together research, development, and deployment activities as part of a capable exascale computing ecosystem to ensure an enduring exascale computing capability for the nation.
ECP’s leadership team has staff from six of the largest DOE national laboratories, but overall, the project has participation from 15 of the 17 DOE laboratories. ECP is composed of approximately 1,000 researchers, scientists, participating US HPC systems companies, and project management experts in support of the project’s key research focus areas: Application Development, Software Technology, and Hardware and Integration. ECP will also play a key role in helping to drive new training programs throughout the US HPC ecosystem to prepare application developers, researchers, and scientists to take full advantage of future-generation exascale environments.
An aggressive research, development, and deployment project, ECP is focused on the delivery of DOE mission-critical applications, an integrated software stack, and exascale hardware technology advances. These products are being deployed to DOE HPC facilities on pre-exascale machines and will ultimately be implemented on exascale systems—where they will address the United States’ most critical challenges in national security, energy assurance, economic competitiveness, health care, and scientific discovery.