New Supercomputer First To Officially Break The Quintillion Calculations A Second Barrier


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

Frontier delivery

Despite the challenges posed by supply chain issues, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory has created Frontier, the first supercomputer to officially break the exaflop barrier with parts installed September-November 2021. Image credit: Carlos Jones/ORNL, US Department of Energy

A supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) has demonstrated 1.1 Exaflop performance or 1.1 quintillion calculations a second. The achievement makes it, according to independent computer scientists, the fastest computer in the world and the first to break the exaflop barrier. These claims face some opposition, but meanwhile, its makers say it can go even faster.

According to ORNL, Frontier, as the supercomputer is named, is capable of 2 exaflops. However, they have yet to demonstrate this to independent observers' satisfaction. On the other hand, The TOP 500 project, which has been ranking the 500 most powerful non-distributed computer systems in the world twice a year since 1993, has been convinced that Frontier can manage 1.102 exaflops. This, according to TOP 500's media release, makes Frontier the first computer to break the exaflop barrier.


To give some sense of the scale here, ORNL noted that “if each person on Earth completed one calculation per second, it would take more than four years to do what an exascale computer can do in one second.”

For two years previously, TOP 500 has given the prize to the Japanese Fugaku system, which has demonstrated a relatively leisurely 442 PetaFlop/second, although its theoretical maximum is also above the Exaflop mark.

Some, however, appear to regard TOP 500 as having a bias, if not to the Western world then at least against China. According to TOP 500's list, the highest-ranking Chinese supercomputer comes in at number six, with the National Supercomputing Center's Sunway TaihuLight acknowledged as achieving 93 Petaflop/second – that is less than a tenth of Frontier's speed.

Others, however, claim China got to exascale supercomputing first, and did it twice, with speeds of 1.3 Exaflop/s on both the Oceanlite and Tianhe-3 systems achieved last year.


With supercomputing arguably being to competition between China and the West what the Space Race was to the Cold War, it's probably not surprising big claims are being made without being accepted by the other side. Moreover, with the US having blacklisted Chinese computing companies over allegations of illegal copying, China has an incentive to show it doesn't need American technology to be the first to reach milestones.

Unsurprisingly, China is a lot less transparent about its giant computers than the US is, and so far they haven't published anything to prove their claimed achievements.

In the context of a public relations battle, the actual uses of all that computing power can be treated as secondary, but ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia said “Frontier is ushering in a new era of exascale computing to solve the world's biggest scientific challenges.” ORNL's Jeff Nichols added: “Scientists and engineers from around the world will put these extraordinary computing speeds to work to solve some of the most challenging questions of our era, and many will begin their exploration on Day One.”

Frontier consists of 9,400 CPUs and 37,000 GPUs and weighs 8,000 pounds (3.6 tonnes). ORNL notes the 700 Petabytes its storage system holds is; “35 times the amount of data housed in the Library of Congress.”


This scale of computing requires a lot of power, but ORNL pointed out Frontier's Test and Development system topped a list of flops performed for unit energy required at 63 gigaflops per watt, thanks to its liquid-cooling system.


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