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Cray to build El Capitan supercomputer for nuclear security apps

The $600 million supercomputer will be among the world's fastest.

A mockup of the Intel-Cray Aurora supercomputer
A mockup of Cray's El Capitan, the National Nuclear Security Administration's first exascale supercomputer. 
Lawrence Livermore National Laboritory

Cray has been awarded a $600 million contract to build the first exascale supercomputer for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the US Department of Energy and the NNSA announced Tuesday. Named El Capitan, the supercomputer will be among the fastest known in the world and will help manage the US' nuclear stockpile. It's expected to go into production by late 2023.

Supercomputers are used for power-intensive programs like quantum physics, examining whether old nuclear weapons could still explode, forecasting global climate change effects, designing engines and aircraft and reconstructing the history of the universe. The two highest-powered supercomputers are still Summit and Sierra, owned by IBM in the US, according to a June report from Top500, which twice a year ranks the highest-performing computer systems in the world.

Sierra tops out at 125 petaflops, while El Capitan could run roughly 10 times faster, according to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It has a peak performance of more than 1.5 exaflops, or 1.5 quintillion calculations per second, and will be used for national nuclear security applications at more than 50 times the speed of LLNL's Sequoia system.

El Capitan is also projected to be at least four times more energy efficient than Sierra.

"El Capitan will allow us to be more responsive, innovative and forward-thinking when it comes to maintaining a nuclear deterrent that is second to none in a rapidly evolving threat environment," Lisa E Gordon-Hagerty, DOE Nuclear Security under secretary, said in a release.

All those exaflops will be pressed into service for the Stockpile Stewardship Program, which supports US national security missions and monitoring the nation's nuclear stockpile in the absence of underground testing. El Capitan will also focus on evolving threats to national security, nonproliferation and nuclear counterterrorism.

In 2016, a report from the US government showed it still used a 1970s-era IBM Series/1 mainframe computer with 8-inch floppy drives to control its nuclear forces -- including intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers and tanker support aircraft.

Cray is in the process of being acquired by Hewlett Packard Enterprise for $1.3 billion.

Now playing: Watch this: Summit is the world's smartest computer

Originally published Aug. 13, 3:34 p.m. PT.
Correction, Aug. 15
: The original version of this story misstated El Capitan's speed. It'll likely be among the world's fastest supercomputers when it's delivered in 2023.