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July 15, 2012

DOE funds pre-Exaflop technology development from Intel, AMD, Nvidia and Whamcloud to set the stage for Main Exaflop Supercomputer project

HPCWire - Intel, AMD, NVIDIA, and Whamcloud have been awarded tens of millions of dollars by the US Department of Energy (DOE) to kick-start research and development required to build exascale supercomputers. The work will be performed under the FastForward program, a joint effort run by the DOE Office of Science and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) that will focus on developing future hardware and software technologies capable of supporting such machines.

Although we're only six to eight years away from the first exaflops systems, the DOE's primary exascale program has yet to be funded. (And since this is an election year in the US, such funding will probably not fall into place until 2013.) In the interim, FastForward was devised in order to begin the needed R&D for some of the exascale foundational technologies, in particular, processors, memory and storage.

At least some of the impetus for the program came from the vendors themselves. According to Mark Seager, Intel's CTO for the company's High Performance Computing Ecosystem group, the DOE was told by multiple commercial partners that research for the component pieces needed to get underway this year if they hoped to field an exascale machine by 2020. That led to the formation of the program, and apparently there was enough loose change rolling around at the Office of Science and NNSA to fund this more modest effort.

Although all the FastForward subcontracts have yet to be made public, as of today there are four known awards:

* Intel: $19 million for both processor and memory technologies
* AMD: $12.6 million for processor and memory technologies
* NVIDIA: $12 million for processor technology
* Whamcloud (along with EMC, Cray and HDF Group): Unknown dollar amount for storage and I/O technologies



Although the FastForward contracts limit their scope to specific exascale components, rather than complete systems, the research won't be performed in a complete vacuum. The vendors are expected to work in conjunction with the DOE's exascale co-design centers, a group that encapsulates various proxy applications, algorithms, and programming models important to the agency. The idea is to align the vendor R&D designs with the DOE's application needs and expectations, the implication being that these are general enough to apply to a wide range of exascale codes both inside and outside the Energy Department.

All the FastForward contracts have a two-year lifetime, so are slated to expire in 2014. The follow-on DOE work to design and build entire exascale supercomputers are dependent on future budgets. Assuming the feds comes through with the funding, that effort is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars over the next several years.


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