World's fastest supercomputer coming to US in 2021 from Cray, AMD

The Energy Department awards a $600 million contract to build Frontier, while China and other countries are buying more supercomputers.

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The IBM-built Sierra supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is today's second-fastest supercomputer, but it'll be about a sixteenth as fast as the Cray-built Frontier due in 2021.

The IBM-built Sierra supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is today's second-fastest supercomputer, but it'll be about one-sixteenth as fast as the Cray-built Frontier due in 2021.

Randy Wong/LLNL

The "exascale" computing race is getting a new entrant called Frontier, a $600 million machine with Cray and AMD technology that could become the world's fastest when it arrives at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2021.

Frontier should be able to perform 1.5 quintillion calculations per second, a level called 1.5 exaflops and enough to claim the performance crown, the Energy Department announced Tuesday. Its speed will be about 10 times faster than that of the current record holder on the Top500 supercomputer ranking, the IBM-built Summit machine, also at Oak Ridge, and should surpass a $500 million, 1-exaflops Cray-Intel supercomputer called Aurora to be built in 2021 at Argonne National Laboratory.

There's no guarantee the US will win the race to exascale machines -- those that cross the 1-exaflop threshold -- because China, Japan and France each could have exascale machines in 2020. At stake is more than national bragging rights: It's also about the ability to perform cutting-edge research in areas like genomics, nuclear physics, cosmology, drug discovery, artificial intelligence and climate simulation.

And even if Frontier gives the US the No. 1 spot, it's far from a complete victory. China is home to 227 of the Top500 machines today, compared with an all-time low of 109 for the US.

Intel processors dominate the Top500 list of the world's fastest supercomputers, though the top two machines use IBM Power processors. Unusually, Frontier will use AMD Epyc CPUs, though. Each will be boosted by four of AMD's Radeon Instinct graphics chips, the companies said.

DOE probably chose an AMD-based supercomputer in part for the performance that's possible with a technology called Infinity Fabric, which offers a fast connection between CPUs and GPUs, said Patrick Moorhead, analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy. "This bodes well for AMD's future, as this is technology that should be in the mainstream market after 2021," Moorhead said.

Watch this: Summit is the world's smartest computer

Originally published May 7, 4 a.m. PT.
Update, 8:19 a.m.: Adds analyst comment.