Exascale supercomputer: Frontier breaks computer speed records

Frontier, a supercomputer built by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is the first to be capable of an exaflop — a billion billion operations per second


May 31, 2022

super computer

The Frontier supercomputer

Carlos Jones/ORNL, US Department of Energy

The world’s first exascale computerCapable of performing a billion billion operations per second, was built by Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

A typical laptop is only capable of a few teraflops, or a trillion operations per second, which is a million times less. The exaflop machine, called Frontier, could help solve a range of complex scientific problems, such as accurate climate modeling, nuclear fusion simulation and drug discovery.

“Frontier provides modeling and simulation capabilities at the highest level of computing performance,” said Thomas Zacharia of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The Frontier computer system is housed in 74 separate cabinets, consisting of 9,400 CPUs, or standard computer processors, and 37,000 GPUs, which are processors designed to render 3D graphics, but can also be used for a range of other tasks

This means that the machine has a total of 8,730,112 cores capable of parallel computing; a typical laptop has between five and nine. At peak power, the computer generates so much heat that it takes four powerful pumps to push more than 25,000 liters of water through the machine every minute.

Frontier’s exaflop performance means it’s not alone: number one in the TOP500an international collaboration to rank the world’s most powerful supercomputers, but it also represents a quarter of the computing power of the entire list.

“One machine represents 25 percent of the total performance of the entire list, so it’s a very, very impressive achievement,” says Simon McIntosh-Smith at the University of Bristol, UK.

Frontier also has yet to reach its final form. In the coming months and years, if the software is optimized, it could reach a theoretical peak of 2 exaflops.

In the past, supercomputing milestones were soon followed by many more machines with similar capabilities. Although several exascale machines are planned in the coming years, it is not clear how widespread this technology could become.

“The rate of improvement in electronics has slowed somewhat, so we don’t expect exascale machines to spread through the TOP500 as quickly as, say, for petascale,” says McIntosh-Smith, referring to machines with one-thousandth of the capabilities.

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