Supercomputers Break Petaflop Barrier, Transforming Science

By Betsy Mason |

A new crop of supercomputers is breaking down the petaflop speed barrier, pushing high-performance computing into a new realm that could change science more profoundly than at any time since Galileo, leading researchers say.

When the Top 500 list of the world’s fastest supercomputers was announced at the international supercomputing conference in Austin, Texas, on Monday, IBM had barely managed to cling to the top spot, fending off a challenge from Cray. But both competitors broke petaflop speeds, performing 1.105 and 1.059 quadrillion floating-point calculations per second, the first two computers to do so.

These computers aren’t just faster than those they pushed further down the list, they will enable a new class of science that wasn’t possible before. As recently described in Wired magazine, these massive number crunchers will push simulation to the forefront of science.

Scientists will be able to run new and vastly more accurate models of complex phenomena: Climate models will have dramatically higher resolution and accuracy, new materials for efficient energy transmission will be developed and simulations of scramjet engines will reach a new level of complexity.

“The scientific method has changed for the first time since Galileo invented the telescope (in 1609),” said computer scientist Mark Seager of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Supercomputing has made huge advances over the last decade or so, gradually packing on the ability to handle more and more data points in increasingly complex ways. It has enabled scientists to test theories, design experiments and predict outcomes as never before. But now, the new class of petaflop-scale machines is poised to bring about major qualitative changes in the way science is done.

“The new capability allows you to do fundamentally new physics and tackle new problems,” said Thomas Zacharia, who heads up computer science at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, home of the second place Cray XT5 Jaguar supercomputer. “And it will accelerate the transition from basic research to applied technology.”

Breaking the petaflop barrier, a feat that seemed astronomical just two years ago, won’t just allow faster computations. These computers will enable entirely new types of science that couldn’t have been done before. This new generation of petascale machines will move scientific simulation beyond just supporting the two main branches of science, theory and experimentation, and into the foreground. Instead of just hypotheses being tested with experiments and observations, large-scale extrapolation and prediction of things we can’t observe or that would be impractical for an experiment, will become central to many scientific endeavors.

“It’s getting to the point where simulation is actually the third branch of science,” Seager said. “We say that nature is always the arbiter of truth, but it turns out our ability to observe nature is fundamentally limited.”