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IBM and Nvidia to Help U.S. Government Build Two Seriously Super Computers

Aiming above the 100-petaflop barrier.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

The U.S. Department of Energy laid out plans to spend $325 million, working with IBM and Nvidia, to build two new supercomputers that will come online in 2017.

One of the machines will be at least five times more powerful than Titan (pictured above), currently the most powerful machine in the U.S. and the second-most powerful machine in the world, as of the June release of the most recent Top500 list of the world’s most powerful supercomputers.

The machines will be based on IBM’s OpenPOWER chips and a new Nvidia chip called Volta, and both will have computing power well above 100 petaflops per second. What’s a petaflop? Well, first it’s helpful to know what a FLOP is: A floating point operation. In English, it’s a kind of mathematical calculation that involves fractional numbers. The prefix peta- indicates that we’re talking about quadrillions of those operations every second. (Quadrillions comes after trillions.)

One machine, called Sierra, will live at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. The more powerful of the two, called Summit, will be at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. It could be as powerful as 300 petaflops. Both will also be capable of moving 17 petabytes of data every second, which is the same as moving 100 billion pictures on Facebook. In one second.

The announcement comes a few days ahead of the latest version of the Top500 list. Currently, the most powerful machine in the world is the Tianhe-2 at the National Supercomputing Center in Guangzhou, China. Its performance tops out at just below 34 petaflops.

What will these computers be used for? I’m told it’ll be research into finding new energy technologies. Last year, Titan was used to make a significant breakthrough in biological research by simulating the behavior of E. coli cells. It helped discover a complex signaling capability in cells that cause illness — one that, in theory, could be stopped and thus halt the spread of certain diseases with new drugs.

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