Frontier Exascale Unveiling: ‘Breathtaking…, a Huge Leap Forward for Science, for Our Country”

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Frontier supercomputer with Justin Whitt, Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility Program and OLCF-5 Project Director

It was a day of high pride at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a day to stop and take stock of the successful completion of a project based on an idea – exascale computing – that was begun more than 20 years ago.

We’re talking about the official unveiling of Frontier, the country’s and the world’s first supercomputer capable of executing a billion billion calculations per second. The event attracted an A List of private and public sector technology players, including Lisa Su, CEO of AMD – whose CPUs and GPUs power the new system – and Antonio Neri, CEO of HPE, Frontier’s prime contractor.

Before the event, we chatted briefly with Su, whom we usually see on cable business channels talking with fawning Wall Street analysts about AMD in the broader server and PC markets. So we were impressed when she told us us she takes the successful installation of Frontier, and its unveiling on Wednesday, “personally,” a comment she elaborated on later in prepared remarks when she said:

“We are a … company with 25,000 employees, and I can tell you, personally, there was no project or company that was more important than delivering Frontier,” she said. “It was a commitment both on a professional level, on a personal level, and really on the national level. And so I can say when I walked into the lab this morning and actually saw Frontier for the very first time put together, it was truly breathtaking.”

AMD CEO Lisa Su at Frontier supercomputer unveiling

She also focused on the breadth and depth of cross-organization and cross-sector cooperation required to deliver Frontier:

“I want to say a big congratulations to everyone who worked on this project, it was truly fun to see you guys in (one room with Frontier). Because … putting this together, on a personal note, I can say for sure that Thomas (Zacharia, ORNL director), Antonio and I sweated a few bullets,” she said. “But we knew we had the best team on the ground to bring this system together. And it’s truly a huge leap forward, for science, for our country, and really, for the industry.”

Neri himself said Frontier can be added to the list of HPE’s “firsts” that includes, he said, the first oscilloscope, the first technology company to deliver mission critical computing and the first to put a commercial server in outer space. He also highlighted Frontier’s energy efficiency.

HPE CEO Antonio Neri

“And so for us, this is another very important accomplishment…,” he said. “Now the lab is the home for Frontier, which obviously is the fastest supercomputer, and most importantly, the greenest. Because …  this level of computational power using less energy is absolutely necessary.”

Neri also tipped his hat to AMD.

“I also want to thank my partner, Lisa, we both made a bet and we both took a risk. But it was a risk that was totally worth it. Because in the end, we need to keep the United States ahead,” Neri said. “As an engineer, I always think about how to keep the competition looking at our taillights, all the time. And that’s what drives us every single day, how we stay ahead … and ultimately, but most importantly, help deliver the results against these big societal challenges we all have.”

He also offered comments indicating HPE remains committed to the leadership supercomputer segment.

Plumbing — Frontier water cooling

“What comes next is probably more excited because today is just the beginning of the journey, and it’s an exciting journey ahead of us,” he said. “We are already working with DOE on next generation breakthrough technologies, and we’ll be really proud to deploy again at this lab.”

Some of the event’s more amusing comments came from DOE Deputy Secretary David Turk, who encouraged the gathering to “step back, especially for those of you who have spent so many hours, months, years working on this particular project on Frontier but more generally in this area of supercomputing and making sure the U.S. is the leader, remains the leader and will remain so for many, many years to come.”

Frontier — cabinet cabling

He noted that while “not everything in life is a competition…, but it’s good to be number one.”

“It’s also incredible to take a step back and recognize how far in front of the pack right now” that Frontier is,” Turk said, noting that the system is twice as powerful as the world’s no. 2 system and that it’s as powerful as nos. 2-8 on the TOP500 list of the world’s most powerful supercomputer.

Master of ceremonies at the event was Zacharia, who will soon retire as Oak Ridge director. Also at the event were Johnny Moore, Oak Ridge site office manager; Barb Helland, DOE associate director; Dr. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, director of DOE’s Office of Science; Frank Rose, principal deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration; Congressman Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN); and Tenneessee Lt. Gov. Randy McNally.