The U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago is home to one of the newest, fastest, most efficient supercomputers in the country, called MIRA. But despite the new equipment, lawmakers are concerned that the United States is losing the international supercomputing race, a field it has dominated for decades.
Lined up in a sprawling room on the second floor of Argonne National Laboratory’s Theory and Computing Sciences building is the future of supercomputing.
Argonne Director Eric Isaacs says MIRA can go where few computers can.
“A machine like this enables us to start solving complex problems, and by complex problems, I mean problems that have many moving parts," he said. "Like a jet engine, a photovoltaic cell, like a grid, if you think about a power grid, a power grid is a very complicated thing.”
When construction and assembly of MIRA began, it was projected to be the third fastest computer on the planet, clocking in at around 10 petaflops.
“That’s 10 quadrillion operations per second. That’s just very fast,” according to Isaacs.
But not fast enough to stay on top.
By the time U.S. Senator Dick Durbin arrived at Argonne for a ceremonial ribbon cutting to officially dedicate the newest machine on the supercomputing block, MIRA had fallen to fifth place in the global ranking of the world’s fastest computers.
“The fastest computer in the world is in China,” Isaacs said.
That computer, known as The Milky Way 2 housed in Guangzhou, is about three times the speed of Argonne’s MIRA.
“It’s also a real threat," Isaacs said. "We’re now seeing China more often take the lead role of being the fastest or having the fastest machine in the world.”
The trend troubles Durbin, who wants the United States to remain competitive in the supercomputing race.
“There’s a competition in this world not just for jobs but for basic research that can be applied to the private sector and public sector, and the world of supercomputing is where many of those battles will be fought,” he said.
Durbin says there also are battles to be fought in the U.S. Congress, where funding for supercomputers is bogged down in the politics of deficit reduction and tighter budgets.
“They know the cost, but they don’t know the value," he said. "We really need to educate members of Congress this supercomputing competition is really key to America’s competitiveness and to a lot of breakthroughs that will benefit the whole world.”
Although MIRA is not the fastest, it does hold the distinction of being the most energy efficient. Air around the processors inside the machine is cooled using chilled water in copper tubes instead of fans, which also reduces the amount of noise it creates.