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US retakes top spot in supercomputer race

The United States has regained a coveted speed crown in computing with a powerful new supercomputer in Tennessee, a milestone for the technology that plays a major role in science, medicine and other fields

By Don Clark
Published: May 31, 2022

US retakes top spot in supercomputer raceThomas Zacharia, director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, with an earlier supercomputer at the lab in Oak Ridge, Tenn., June 6, 2018. The United States has regained a coveted speed crown in computing with a powerful new supercomputer in Tennessee, a milestone for the technology that plays a major role in science, medicine and other fields.

The United States has regained a coveted speed crown in computing with a powerful new supercomputer in Tennessee, a milestone for the technology that plays a major role in science, medicine and other fields.

Frontier, the name of the massive machine at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was declared Monday to be the first to demonstrate performance of 1 quintillion operations per second — a billion billion calculations — in a set of standard tests used by researchers to rank supercomputers. The U.S. Department of Energy several years ago pledged $1.8 billion to build three systems with that “exascale” performance, as scientists call it.

But the crown has a caveat. Some experts believe that Frontier has been beaten in the exascale race by two systems in China. Operators of those systems have not submitted test results for evaluation by scientists who oversee the so-called Top500 ranking. Experts said they suspected that tensions between the United States and China may be the reason the Chinese have not submitted the test results.

“There are rumors China has something,” said Jack Dongarra, a distinguished professor of computer science at the University of Tennessee who helps lead the Top500 effort. “There is nothing official.”

Supercomputers have long been a flashpoint in international competition. The field was dominated by U.S. technology for decades, but China has become a dominant force. A system there called Sunway TaihuLight was ranked the world’s fastest from 2016 to 2018. China accounted for 173 systems on the latest Top500 list, compared with 126 machines in the United States.

Japan has been a smaller but still potent contender. A system called Fugaku, in Kobe, took the No. 1 spot in June 2020, displacing an IBM system at Oak Ridge.

Frontier gives that top position back to the lab. The system, built by Hewlett Packard Enterprise using two kinds of chips from Advanced Micro Devices, was more than twice as fast as Fugaku in the tests used by the Top500 organization.

“It is a proud moment for our nation,” said Thomas Zacharia, director of Oak Ridge. “It reminds us we can still go after something that is bigger than us.”

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©2019 New York Times News Service

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