Titan taking giant steps while ORNL preps for next great supercomputer

IMG_5695Buddy Bland, director of the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, pauses amid the cabinets of Titan, the Cray XK7 supercomputer that’s capable of 20 million billion calculations per second. (KNS/Frank Munger photo) Photograph below shows Bland opening a Titan cabinet. (KNS/Michael Patrick photo)

The whir of the computer room, discernible even with ear protection in place, is the background music for success at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

bland2ORNL, a global leader in scientific computing for decades, appears to be secure in that role, for now and the future.

Titan, a Cray XK7 supercomputer, is currently ranked No. 2 on the TOP500 list of the world’s fastest computers, second only to China’s Tianhe-2. More important than Titan’s sheer speed — about 20 million billion calculations per second — is its scientific production.

ORNL Director Thom Mason said it’s the best science machine on the planet, bar none, optimized for researchers to tackle science’s great challenges.

Many of the finalists for the annual Gordon Bell Prize, which recognizes the top achievement in high-performance computing, have used Titan to perform their work in recent years.

Jack Wells, science director at the National Center for Computational Sciences at ORNL, cited four research projects as examples of Titan’s worth:

— A team from Brown University used the supercomputer to simulate blood flow through veins to grasp the use of microfluidic devices to filter cancer cells from red blood cells. The research also has potential for developing better drug delivery methods and identifying predictors for sickle cell anemia and the formation of tumors.

— Researchers from Virginia Tech used the computing power of Titan to model how different kinds of fluids move in porous rock formations. Results could be used to enhance oil recovery efforts and increase the understanding of how pollutants move underground. The studies also could be applied to proposed projects to store carbon-dioxide in underground formations to help slow climate change. “If you put it there, will it stay there?” Wells said.

— Fusion energy researchers from the University of Tennessee and ORNL, along with scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory, are looking at how escaped particles of ultra-hot plasma fuel would interact with materials used in the structure of a fusion reactor. The research simulates the impact of bursting helium bubbles on a tungsten surface.

— Experts from the Southern California Earthquake Center are using Titan for increasingly sophisticated earthquake simulations to better understand and predict ground motion and establish hazard maps with greater confidence. Researchers continue to ramp up the seismic frequency, gaining information that can be used to reinforce existing structures and to establish building codes for the future.

While today’s work is impressive, Mason noted, “We can’t be complacent. We’ve got to keep improving.”

Improvements are happening in a big way.

A new IBM supercomputer that’s under development with NVIDIA and other partners will be delivered to Oak Ridge beginning next year, and it’s guaranteed to perform applications at least five times faster than Titan and probably a lot more by 2018.

The size and power of Summit, which will replace Titan after a year’s transition, will ultimately depend on funding, according to Buddy Bland, director of the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility.

The contract with IBM specifies that Summit will have a computing power of at least 150 petaflops — 150 million billion calculations per second, Bland said. But if there is enough funding to expand the number of cabinets, using central processing units (CPUs) and graphical processing units (GPUs) to accelerate operations, the capability of Summit could go up to 200 petaflops, 250 petaflops or even 300 petaflops.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water, has vowed that ORNL will once again house the world’s fastest computer — a distinction once held by Titan and its Cray predecessor, Jaguar.

ORNL is busy making preparations for Summit, expanding the electrical power by 10 megawatts and adding cooling capabilities at a special annex behind the existing facility that will house the new IBM supercomputer. The power will be sufficient if Summit tops out at 150 petaflops, but that will be doubled to 20 megawatts if funding becomes available to double the computer’s size.

At this stage, IBM reportedly considers the number of cabinets and other details of the new system to be proprietary, and Bland said the lab signed a nondisclosure agreement that covers that information.

ORNL is acquiring Summit as part of a three-lab partnership called CORAL (Collaboration of Oak Ridge, Argonne and Livermore) that is working together to maximize resources and share technical expertise.

As to whether Summit will rise to No. 1 on the TOP500 list in the next years, that depends — at least in part — on what happens among other computing powers, such as China and Japan, as well as other labs in the United States.

“There’s no guarantee,” Bland said.

Regardless of whether the new machine tops the charts on benchmark tests that determine the rankings, the Oak Ridge team expressed confidence that Summit will continue a tradition of producing great science.

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.