Challenge sparks U.S. leadership computer plan
Posted November 14, 2007
Dr. Raymond L. Orbach
Under Secretary for Science
Department of Energy
Raymond L. Orbach had been director of the Department of Energy Office of Science just a few weeks when news from Japan further heightened his interest in expanding the role of computational science in all the office’s mission areas.
On April 20, 2002, reports surfaced that a new Japanese supercomputer, the Earth Simulator, had posted a top speed five times that of the most powerful U.S. computing system.
The announcement came like an early-morning wakeup call to the American scientific community: Everyone knew it was coming, but it still was a jolt.
The Earth Simulator, designed to model global climate change, had run a benchmarking program at 35.6 teraflops — 35.6 trillion calculations per second. That was as fast as the combined performance of the United States’ top 20 computers, the New York Times reported.
At the time, the most powerful U.S. computer was the ASCI White at DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — a 7 teraflops machine that occupied the No. 1 spot on the TOP500 list of the world’s fastest supercomputers — until the Earth Simulator bumped it.
What shocked scientists and government officials was the Earth Simulator’s efficiency: It had run at more than 85 percent of its 40-teraflops theoretical peak speed — a far greater percentage than U.S. supercomputers.
In practical terms, the Earth Simulator could, in an acceptable amount of time, model climate at 10-kilometer intervals. The best U.S. computers operated at a scale of 100 kilometers. A smaller scale would have meant using years of computer time to obtain results.
“These guys are blowing us out of the water, and we need to sit up and take notice,” Thomas Sterling, a computer designer at the California Institute of Technology, told The New York Times.
DOE’s Office of Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) was in the midst of reviewing the department’s top computing facilities when the Earth Simulator news broke. In fact, a subcommittee of ASCR’s Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee (ASCAC) was just finishing a report on the subject.
Plans changed when the draft report was presented to the full committee on May 2, 2002 — less than two weeks after the Earth Simulator announcement.
Orbach was at the meeting. He had already recognized computing’s central role in DOE and the Earth Simulator’s challenge to American science.
Orbach asked ASCAC for a quick response to the Japanese machine.