Seattle-based supercomputer maker Cray has been tapped to develop a new $600 million system for the U.S. Department of Energy, capable of conducting 3D simulations at unprecedented speeds to better assess and maintain the country’s nuclear weapons capability.
The new system, dubbed “El Capitan,” will be an “exascale” supercomputer, referring to systems that can conduct at least one quintillion (a billion billion) calculations per second, on a level believed to be capable of simulating the human brain. El Capitan will actually be capable of 1.5 quintillion calculations per second, enabling advanced artificial intelligence and modeling capabilities, Cray says.
El Capitan will be more than seven times faster than the world’s current top supercomputer, and more powerful than the top 100 fastest systems in the world combined, said Cray CEO Peter Ungaro in a phone briefing with reporters. Government officials say scientists need these computing capabilities to ensure that U.S. weapons remain a deterrent in the absence of underground nuclear testing, which has been under a national moratorium since 1992.
The new system, scheduled to begin officially operating in 2023, will enable “simulations and calculations at resolutions that are difficult, time-consuming or even impossible using today’s state-of-the-art supercomputers,” said Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, DOE undersecretary for Nuclear Security and administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration. “It will provide scientists and weapon designers the computational tools to explore the use of new materials and components, improve robustness and safety, reduce maintenance costs, and reduce manufacturing and production costs.”
It’s a giant contract for Cray at a time of major change for the Seattle company. Hewlett-Packard Enterprise is acquiring Cray for $1.3 billion in a deal expected to close in late 2019 or early 2020. On the call with reporters, Cray’s Ungaro made a point of saying that the level of computing challenge faced by U.S. nuclear scientists is similar to those big companies are grappling with.
“The future will be all about the fusion of workloads like IoT, analytics, AI, simulation and modeling, all into one business-critical workflow, operating at unprecedented scale and even in real time, and often this convergence will happen within a single application,” Ungaro said, describing these capabilities as key for next-generation data centers. “Everything is getting bigger and more challenging.”
El Capitan will be created for the National Nuclear Security Administration and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, also serving the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories. The system will run on Cray’s new Shasta supercomputing architecture. In a separate announcement, Cray said it has secured nearly $1.5 billion in contracts for Shasta-based systems.
Cray is also developing two other exascale supercomputers for the DOE, for Argonne National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.