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Obama orders creation of exascale supercomputer

Can the president's executive order prompt the development of computer systems capable of running at 1 exaflops?

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CBS News

US President Obama is seeking the might of exascale computers to power the country's government departments in the future.

In a new executive order, the president has issued demands for a new initiative which will focus exclusively on supercomputing research, released by the White House on Wednesday. Titled "Creating a national strategic computing initiative," the president's order outlines plans to create the world's first exascale computing system in order to establish the country's position in high-performance computing (HPC) research and development.

An exascale system would be capable of performing 1 million trillion floating-point operations per second -- otherwise converted as 1,000 petaflops or 1 exaflops -- which is far quicker than today's supercomputers.

However, such a system would need an architecture capable of combining thousands of high-power processors and CPUs, a complete overhaul of how today's computers operate, and would require a fortune in energy and building costs based upon today's system usage rates.

As reported by IEEE Spectrum, an exascale computer could be built, but current systems simply aren't tenable. Steve Scott, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Cray told the publication:

"To some degree it depends on how much money a country is willing to spend. You could build an exaflop computer tomorrow, but it'd be a crazy thing to do because of the cost and energy required to run it."

Despite this, HPC research has to start somewhere. Obama's order has led to the launch of the National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI), a "whole-of-government effort designed to create a cohesive, multi-agency strategic vision and Federal investment strategy, executed in collaboration with industry and academia, to maximize the benefits of HPC for the United States."

The initiative will primarily be a partnership between the US Department of Energy (DOE), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the National Science Foundation (NSF), although the private sector will also be consulted.

The US president believes that increased demand for computing power and maintaining economic growth requires the high performance of next-generation computers. As a result, the new federal strategy aims to propel research in this area forward through orders for the US to deploy and apply HPC technologies across the board, the fostering of growth for public-private collaborative research efforts and increased communication between different government departments, academic institutions and companies.

In addition, Obama says the US must develop a "comprehensive technical and scientific approach" to extend HPC research into hardware, system software, development tools, and applications.

Ultimately, the NSCI is tasked with the development of an exascale computing system which can deliver approximately 100 times the performance of current 10 petaflop systems across a range of applications for government use.

The initiative is also expected to provide, "over the next 15 years, a viable path forward for future HPC systems even after the limits of current semiconductor technology are reached (the "post- Moore's Law era")," according to the order.

If exascale supercomputers become reality through the initiative, NASA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will benefit the most -- and have the option to pitch in their own ideas, requirements and applications through the research process.

While there is no definitive timeline for the NSCI to pull an exascale computer out of the hat, the group's council is required to submit a plan for the development of exascale computers within 90 days of the order being issued and check-in with updates annually.

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