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China's Taihu Light supercomputer is the most powerful computer in the world as of November 2016, capable of hitting 93 peta-flops (floating-point operations per second). (Top 500 photo)
China’s Taihu Light supercomputer is the most powerful computer in the world as of November 2016, capable of hitting 93 peta-flops (floating-point operations per second). (Top 500 photo)

Hoping to beat China to the development of the first production-ready exascale computer, the U.S. Department of Energy plans to announce Wednesday that it will distribute $258 million in funding to six U.S. tech companies for research on the most vital components of that system.

The six companies selected by the DOE — Advanced Micro Devices, Cray, HPE, IBM, Intel, and Nvidia — will also commit at least 40 percent of the costs they incur on the projects, meaning a total of at least $430 million will be devoted to the project. The Exascale Computing Project, which is a joint venture between the DOE’s Office of Science and the National Nuclear Security Administration, will continue to oversee the overall project.

The notion of operating at exascale can be mind-blowing: the term refers to the ability to process a quintillion (1018) calculations per second. Modern supercomputers have been operating at the petascale (a quadrillion calculations per second) level for several years, and leveling up in this world is a massive undertaking that requires deep research by some of the brightest minds in high-performance computing.

Figuring out how to deliver exascale computing power on the hardware side is obviously a big part of this project, but it’s just a piece of the research that will be required to make these systems hum. Assumptions about software development built around current systems might have to be re-evaluated at exascale, and making sure networking components can handle the speed at which these calculations are taking place is also paramount to making the project run smoothly.

The end result will be a computer that is 50 times more powerful than today’s state-of-the-art supercomputers. Even the DOE isn’t exactly sure what we’ll be able to do with an exascale computer, but researchers in weather, material science, and clean energy will take all the computational horsepower they can get.

Four countries are working on exascale computers, including the U.S., China, Japan, and France. China is believed to have a prototype system almost ready to go, with delivery of the complete system in 2020. The new goal of the DOE’s Exascale Computing Project is to have a working system by 2021, which is a faster delivery target than initially set.

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