Arm chips, like those in your phone, will power massive Astra supercomputer
Hewlett Packard Enterprise's Astra machine will study nuclear weapons' safety and reliability. It'll be fast, but not the fastest.
Stephen Shanklandprincipal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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For years, Intel has dominated the market for processors powering supercomputers. But a new system from Hewlett Packard Enterprise will be built this year with a rival design from processor maker Arm, better known for smartphone chips.
The system, called Astra and arriving at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, late this summer is built from 2,592 servers, each with two ThunderX2 Arm processors built by Cavium. Each processor has 28 cores, and each server is about 100 times faster than a modern phone, Sandia said.
It's the biggest Arm-based machine yet, capable of performing quadrillions of calculations per second, HPE said Monday. That's quite an achievement for a chip family that got its start with handheld computers like the Apple Newton and rose to prominence powering just about every phone today, from Apple's iPhones to competing models using Google's Android software.
Why mess with Arm chips when Intel Xeon processors are the top pick for supercomputing today? Arm-based servers are more economical with power and can be packed more densely, and HPE likes their memory performance, too, the company said Monday.
Astra is the first of a "potential series of advanced architecture prototype platforms" in Sandia's Vanguard program to explore new computing designs for the US nuclear weapons program, Sandia said.
Even Astra will be far from the fastest machine around. But it's still a significant step in the push by the US and Chinese governments to reach "exascale" supercomputing -- an exaflop, or quintillion calculations per second.
Astra's theoretical peak speed should be 2.3 petaflops. You'd need the entire population of Earth to perform 300,000 calculations each second to match that. However, the Top500 supercomputers are ranked on sustained performance, a lower number than the theoretical peak.