UT-Austin’s Texas Advanced Computing Center is rolling out a system upgrade this month that is expected to place its newest supercomputer among the 10 most powerful computing machines on the planet.
Stampede 2, on the J.J. Pickle Research Campus, is the fastest at any university in the U.S. It has been running virtually nonstop since launching in late July, crunching unfathomable amounts of data – from the formations of galaxies to the innermost secrets of living cells.
Stampede 2 consists of six rows of wired, blinking computer cabinets. It sits behind glass in a bright room slightly larger than a basketball court. Its maximum computing power is akin to about 100,000 new laptops, one for every seat at DKR Texas Memorial Stadium.
The supercomputer is ranked 12th most powerful in the world on the global TOP500 list. By next month, the technology upgrade is expected to push Stampede’s peak computing power from 13 to 18 petaflops, or 18 quadrillion computations per second.
Tommy Minyard, systems director for TACC, says Stampede 2 is expected to jump several spots during the next round of rankings in November.
One thing common about all supercomputers, he says, is the faster they go, the hotter they get.
“Right now, it’s not superhot in here,” he says during a recent tour, “but when we run our full-power workloads, it definitely gets a lot hotter in here.”
Researchers across the country run data and experiments on the supercomputer 24/7, but Minyard says the system can accommodate only a fraction of the requests for using it.
“There will be probably 100 potential jobs running on this system at any given time,” Minyard says. “They can be doing everything from weather forecasting to astrophysics, galaxy formation modeling. ... You name the science, and there’s probably somebody running on the system doing that kind of science.”
In August and September, Stampede 2 ran storm track and coastal surge forecasts for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. The data it processed helped provide high-resolution weather warnings for people in the paths of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Global Arms Race
The computer lab is led by TACC Executive Director Dan Stanzione, who has overseen several generations of supercomputers during his career.
“As long as we can produce more and more data, we're going to need bigger and bigger computers to sift through it,” he says.
Stanzione says pushing the limits of supercomputing matters because whoever reaches certain milestones first will hold advantage for years to come. For that reason, the U.S. and other nations are investing billions of dollars annually into what’s considered a new, full-blown arms race.
“The fastest machines in the world are mostly sort of government machines, national-scale machines," he says. "Number one and two right now are in China. … The two or three fastest ones in the United States are at the Department of Energy – partially at the weapons labs, partially at the science labs. So, in some ways, it's directly an arms race in that one of the many applications of these machines is advanced weapons design."
Before Stampede 2 came Stampede 1 and before that was Ranger, the fifth fastest supercomputer in the world in 2008. TACC decommissioned Ranger in 2013 and parts of it went to Baylor and Texas A&M universities, but most of it went to Africa.
Happy Sithole, who directs the Center for High Performance Computing in South Africa, says the Ranger system is now instrumental in several advanced-computing programs on the continent.
“When Ranger retired … it managed to get some other use at a number of universities here in South Africa and also a number of countries in Africa,” he said.
Sithole says most of TACC’s old supercomputer is training new generations of computer scientists, like Bryan Johnston, a senior technologist at the South African center’s Advanced Computer Engineering Lab.
Johnston says Africa is an untapped resource in the supercomputing world.
“I think there’s a lot of passion, a lot of interest in Africa," he said, "and I’m really, really honored to be part of that community-building," he said.
Happily Ever After?
The potential of supercomputers transforming the world has weighed heavily on our imaginations for decades. Curiously, in fiction and film, that’s mostly entailed highly negative outcomes.
Johnson says it's a given that supercomputers will dramatically change our power to understand and control the world, but they’re still a long way from taking over.
“At the moment, I don’t think we have anything to worry about in that respect," he said. "I’m seeing a lot of great science happening around me from my colleagues that … [outweighs] any concerns for that sort of stuff at the moment. No one has created Skynet yet, and as long as no one names their machine 'Skynet' I don’t think we need to worry."
TACC is already making plans for Stampede 2's replacement when it’s retired about four years from now. It says it has yet to settle on a name.
Follow Joseph Leahy on Twitter at @JOEMIKELEAHY