pushes toward exascale
Posted August 23, 2011
Part of a series.
Researchers building and programming potent computers of the future face many of the same obstacles they’ve surmounted to create and use today’s most powerful machines.
Only more so. Much more so.
Computer designers, applied mathematicians, programmers and hardware vendors already are considering how to overcome these barriers on the road from petaflops (a quadrillion math operations per second) to an exaflops (a thousand petaflops).
But if exascale computing is to realize its potential, there must be an unprecedented level of collaboration between these experts and researchers who will use it to tackle fundamental questions in biology, like the best ways to convert woody materials into fuel; in fusion energy, which creates small versions of the sun’s power here on earth; in astrophysics and particle physics, such as the interactions of immense galaxies and tiny elements of matter; in basic energy sciences, like the properties of materials to capture renewable energy; and in other fields.
The level of collaboration must be “huge” if exascale is to succeed for science, says Jacqueline Chen, a distinguished member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories and a top combustion researcher.
“We’re at an important crossroads in high-performance computing,” says Chen, leader of one of three new co-design research centers. (See sidebar, “Co-design centers will point the way to exascale.”) An exaflops computer’s size, plus constraints on its power consumption and cost, mean “it’s important that we revisit everything in the stack,” from applications to hardware to systems software.
This close partnership is the essence of “co-design” – involving researchers from multiple applications in planning, resulting in exascale computers suitable for general purposes. It’s not an entirely new concept, says Daniel Hitchcock, acting associate director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science for Advanced Scientific Computing Research, but until now co-design has been largely informal. “That’s been OK in the past,” he says, “but the systems have gotten complicated enough now that that won’t work anymore.”
Co-design has emerged as a major theme in crosscutting issues for exascale computing, says Paul Messina, director of science for the Leadership Computing Facility at Argonne National Laboratory, who was co-chairman of a DOE scientific grand challenges workshop on the subject. With every science domain facing similar obstacles to exascale, “we very much wanted to help them all instead of having a custom solution” for each. Co-design involving different science communities can help meet that goal.