Bow down to the Titan supercomputer, puny mortals. The Titan just earned the title for the world’s most powerful supercomputer, and it is not fucking around.
Built by Cray Inc., “the supercomputer company,” and Nvidia, the Titan is the result of $97 million worth of funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and a whole lot of ambition. The machine’s specifications reflect as much. Built by the geniuses at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Titan contains over 18,688 processing units—each one contains both an Advanced Micro Devices 16-core Opteron 6274 CPU and an Nvidia Tesla K20 graphic processing unit—and 700 terabytes of memory, all contained in 200 server cabinets. All that enabled the machine to clock in at 17.59 sustained petaflops in the test for the biannual TOP500 list. One petaflop is equivalent to a quadrillion calculations per second. With fifteen zeroes, one quadrillion is a very large number.
The Titan beat out the Sequoia for the title of the world’s most powerful computer in the latest TOP500 list. The comparatively puny Sequoia can only pull off 16.32 petaflops, whereas the Jaguar supercomputer, the Titan’s predecessor, is one tenth as powerful.
Machines with these kinds of capabilities remain devoted to helping solve science and math’s toughest problems. The insane processing power enables researchers to build infinitely complex models for things like climate change. This tier of supercomputers have also been used for research into nuclear power plant technology and advanced physics problems. Jeff Nichols, associate director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, says he wants to use Titan for his work on materials science, specifically how to design better photovoltaics.
The only problem with a supercomputer with as much horsepower as the Titan is, somewhat obviously, the gas mileage. The Titan uses 9 megawatts of power, enough juice to power about 9,000 homes and to rack up about $10 million a year in energy costs. For now, the Department of Energy is going to foot the bill, a luxury for the researchers who want to use the Titan for their research and an advantage over the supercomputers in use in China and elsewhere.
“American competitiveness is very important from a global security and national security perspective,” Nichols told PC World. “If you look at Oak Ridge and what we bring to the table is that we have application developers that can use these machines at scale. China cannot. They have an economic development model that says we’ll put this hardware on the floor and people can come in and pay for using the machine in order to do their scientific research.”
It’s only going to get better from here. The next milestone for supercomputing is to build an exaflop computer, a machine capable of doing a quintillion operations per second. Nichols says that ORNL could develop an exaflop machine by 2020, but at that point in time, they’ll need to start thinking about who’s actually going to buy these machines. “We have to think about making the case for the 2020 exascale machine or 2016 machine,” said Nichols. “We have to start talking to vendors about those machines.” After all, the government can’t sponsor all this supercomputer research forever!