What if we gave scientists machines that dwarf today’s most powerful supercomputers? What could they tell us about the nature of, say, a nuclear explosion? Indeed, what else could they discover about the world? This is the story of the quest for an exascale computer – and how it might change our lives.
What is exascale?
One exaflop is 1,000 times faster than a petaflop. The fastest computer in the world is currently the IBM-based Roadrunner, which is located in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Roadrunner runs at an astounding one petaflop, which equates to more than 1,000 trillion operations per second. The supercomputer has 129,600 processing cores and takes up more room than a small house, yet it’s still not quite fast enough to run some of the most intense global weather simulations, nuclear tests and brain modelling tasks that modern science demands. For example, the lab currently uses the processing power of Roadrunner to run complex visual cortex and cellular modelling experiments in almost real- time. In the next six months, the computer will be used for nuclear simulation and stockpile tests to make sure that the US nuclear weapon reserves are safe. However, when exascale calculations become a reality in the future, the lab could step up to running tests on ocean and atmosphere interactions. These are not currently possible because the data streams involved are simply too large. The move to exascale is therefore critical, because researchers require increasingly fast results from their experiments.