Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Summit supercomputer.

Dec 06 2021

Oak Ridge’s Supercomputers Help Scientists Conduct Unique Research

The supercomputers of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory are integral to advancing research on everything from COVID-19 to hydropower.

How climate change might impact hydropower generation. How solar explosions form and crate new elements following a supernova. How new therapeutic drugs can be used to treat COVID-19.

These are just a few of the scientific endeavors that have been enabled by the supercomputers at one of the nation’s leading research labs, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, part of the Energy Department.

The supercomputers, which are continuing to evolve and become more powerful, help scientists conduct research that few other institutions in the world can support. For more than 25 years, ORNL has been pushing the boundaries of what supercomputers are capable of, and those advances have made scientific research more efficient and useful.

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Oak Ridge Deploys Powerful Supercomputers

Supercomputers have capabilities that are orders of magnitude greater than those of typical computers, according to Bronson Messer, director of science at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility.

“We’re responsible for providing computational resources that are about 100 times greater than what’s otherwise available, either commercially or with the government,” he says.

Supercomputers represent the leading edge of computational technology, and many of the technologies available in supercomputers eventually become consumer products, says Justin Whitt, program director of the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility.

ORNL’s first foray into the list of the top 500 supercomputers in the world came in 1995 with the deployment of an Intel Paragon, Messer says. Since then, the lab has been steadily deploying more advanced and powerful supercomputers. The Summit supercomputer at Oak Ridge, the second-fastest in the world as of now, is capable of 200 quadrillion calculations per second.

“What’s special about it is the network that ties it together,” Messer adds. “Summit has a lot more in common with things like the Large Hadron Collider and the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s a unique scientific instrument.”

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How ORNL’s Supercomputers Aid Unique Scientific Research

To tackle the kind of scientific experimentation the lab enables via supercomputers, Oak Ridge needs expertise in software engineering and computer science, and “extreme expertise in machine and deep learning,” says Dan Jacobson, chief scientist for computational systems biology at Oak Ridge. He adds that the lab also needs expertise in statistics, various areas of biology, engineering, chemistry and physics.

All that expertise combines with the power of the supercomputers to make scientific inquiries much more efficient.

Shih-Chieh Kao, a hydrologist at Oak Ridge, says that initially, when conducting some research, he and his team used a regular desktop machine to research a small problem. It took three days to conduct a simulation.

“Right now, we have access to Summit and much, much better software,” he says. “The same problem probably takes only less than a minute.”

The lab has also dedicated about 2 million hours to research on COVID-19, according to Messser, and has “realized some real successes, especially in the field of therapeutics,” he says.

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“It’s a little bit like the Industrial Revolution,” Whitt adds. “There is suddenly this capability to do a lifetime of work in hours or days that never existed before.”

Oak Ridge is pushing ahead toward new advances in supercomputing, making it possible for scientists to “answer questions that have been outstanding in a lot of scientific fields for decades,” Messer says.

ORNL is moving toward exascale computing, a more powerful form of supercomputing that performs even more calculations per second. “200 quintillion operations per second is Summit’s peak speed,” Messer says.

Oak Ridge is working to deploy Frontier, which the lab thinks will be the world’s first exascale computer, and which will have a peak speed five times faster than Summit’s.

“We really have the hope of answering some very fundamental questions that, even as recently as 10 years ago, we would never have thought there was a way to answer,” Messer says.

Photo courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory

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