© IntelA rendering of Aurora, which doesn’t yet exist.
A government laboratory in Illinois will receive the fastest
supercomputer in the United States in 2021, and it will be the first
to hit what’s called exascale-level processing. The mammoth machine,
called Aurora, will live at Argonne National Laboratory, and will be
able to accomplish tasks like simulating complex systems, running
artificial intelligence, and conducting materials-science research.
So what’s the point of a supercomputer? Experiments like crash-testing
a car are expensive, complicated, and sometimes dangerous. A
supercomputer simulation, however, allows researchers to carry out
those tests virtually, and track and change countless variables as
they play out. Some supercomputers even simulate nuclear blasts, which
is best done virtually, and not in the real world.
Then there’s energy research: researchers could use Aurora to test the
design of a wind turbine blade. Instead of building real blades with
multiple variations and seeing how they perform, a supercomputer lets
you simulate that experiment, which is much faster and a whole lot
cheaper. Or, consider climate research. “You cannot put the world in a
bottle in a laboratory, and see what happens if we do this, that, or
the other thing with our energy policy,” says Steve Scott, the chief
technical officer at Cray, Inc, one of the companies building Aurora.
Think about powerful supercomputers as a way to virtually put the
world in a digital bottle. Here’s what else to know about Aurora, by
In 2021, when Aurora comes online, expect it to be the top machine
domestically. “It’s targeted to be the fastest in the United States
when it’s built,” says Alan Gara, a fellow at Intel, which is also
working on the new machine. Or course, the US is not the only country
investing in supercomputers. Right now, the third-fastest machine is
in China, and as recently as November of 2017, the two fastest
supercomputers were both Chinese, followed by Switzerland and Japan.
“There’s a little bit of a race, and for good reason—these have become
for tools for nations to compete in some ways,” Gara says. In brief,
if Aurora is fastest in the world at some point, it’s safe to assume
it won’t hold that spot perpetually.
A quintillion operations per second
Aurora will be able carry out a quintillion operations each second—a
billion billion. Written out, that number looks like this:
1,000,000,000,000,000,000. In the realm of supercomputers and even
some regular computer chips, performance is measured in FLOPS:
floating point operations per second. Those operations are the complex
math equations—adding or multiplying two long numbers together—that
allow computers to carry out the problem at hand, like rendering
graphics on a screen or running a complex simulation.
That quintillion operations per second capability is what makes Aurora
an exaflop machine, and that means it will be able to do
1,000,000,000,000,000,000 hard math problems every second.
The top supercomputers right now are measured petaflops. A sprawling
machine called Summit, at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, can hit a
peak of 200 petaflops—Aurora should be five times as powerful. Wind
back the clock to the late 90s, and supercomputers clocked in at a
teraflop. (Historically, chips and transistors have become smaller and
“The fastest supercomputers on the planet are about 200 petaflops, so
this is on the order of five to tens faster,” says Peter Ungaro,
president and CEO of Cray. “It is a massive jump in performance and
capability in a very short time.”
A billion laptops
If you assume a typical laptop can carry out a billion operations per
second, Aurora is the equivalent of a billion laptops all connected
together. “That’s a phenomenal number,” Gara, of Intel, says. Of
course, Aurora will run better than a billion laptops all strung
together would, because supercomputers must also be wired in smart
ways so that the components are interconnected efficiently, not to
mention other practical issues like making sure the hardware is
liquid-cooled. “That’s really what differentiates a supercomputer from
just a pile of a billion laptops,” he says.
For another point of reference, the Xbox One X is currently the
fastest gaming console on the market. It checks in around 6 teraflops.
More than 200 cabinets
Supercomputers aren’t one massive, singular machine sitting in the
middle of an empty room. Instead, their hardware is in cabinets.
Aurora will need more than 200 of them, and according to Cray, each
cabinet is about 4 feet wide, over 5 feet deep, and over 7 feet tall.
Since the cabinets need some space between them, the total area of the
system will need to be at least 6,400 square feet. That means that at
a minimum, the Aurora computer will take up more space than a
Each cabinet will get hot, but Cray says that thanks to liquid
cooling, they could keep each cabinet chilly enough to run with a
quarter megawatt of power.
© Oak Ridge National LaboratoryThe Summit supercomputer in Tennessee
Since the computing nodes within each cabinet and the cabinets
themselves need to be connected to each other, switches and copper and
fiber-optic cabling will network it all. Each cabinet has multiple
switches, and each switch contains 64 ports. When the data is flowing
from switch to switch, it can travel at a speed of 200 gigabits per
second. Picture a fiber-optic cable stretching from a switch on one
cabinet to another cabinet, and the data can move at a speed of
200,000 megabits per second. (For comparison, Netflix says you’ll need
an internet connect of 5 Mbps to stream HD films, or 25 for 4K.)
And each node is connected by just three “hops” or less from switch to
switch, says Scott, of Cray.
Ultimately, all this talk about teraflops, petaflops, and exaflops are
benchmarks that computer scientists use to describe a machine’s
capabilities. “These are just arbitrary milestones,” Scott says. “The
challenge, of course, is just continuing to push the frontier.”