Darlene Storm

Meet the fastest, most powerful science machine in the world: Titan supercomputer

November 01, 2012 3:16 PM EDT

Ah, even better than new car smell, the sexy smell of new supercomputer is in the air of Tennessee and calling out like a siren to scientists with the world's problems to solve in the six areas of climate change, astrophysics, biofuels, combustion, materials science, and nuclear energy systems. Here's a look at Titan as well as some Oak Ridge National Laboratory images taken while building the number-crunching monster science machine.

Titan supercomputer has 20 petaflops, a quadrillion calculations per second, equal to each of the world’s 7 billion people being able to carry out 3 million math problems per second

When introducing Titan to the world, the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory said it is “the world’s most powerful supercomputer for open science with a theoretical peak performance exceeding 20 petaflops (quadrillion calculations per second).” That almost unimaginable computational capability is like if each of the world’s 7 billion people were to solve 3 million math problems per second. To better help you wrap your mind around just how fast Titan is, “It would take 60,000 years for 1,000 people working at a rate of one calculation per second to complete the number of calculations that Titan can process in a single second,” explained National Geographic. Regarding such mathematical magic, Buddy Bland, Project Director, Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, likened Titan to a “time machine.”

NPR called Titan faster than “half a million laptops,” but far from cheap. The supercomputer cost $100 million and its super electric bill is expected to cost about $9 million per year.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory Titan supercomputer

CPU + GPU hybrid

Titan is one of the largest computers in the world, not just in crunching processing power, but also in physical size—“Titan is about the same size as a basketball court,” said Bland. It has 200 cabinets that are each about the size of a refrigerator and uses as much electricity as a small town. Although that might sound like an energy hog monster, Titan is considered “the fastest, most powerful, and most energy-efficient" supercomputer with a hybrid architecture as its “energy-saving secret.”

In a BBC behind-the-scenes video, Bland said that Titan “uses a new type of architecture that has graphical processing units that gamers use to make their video games run very, very quickly.” Titan is a hybrid that uses high-performance graphical processing units (GPUs) to boost the power of its central processing units (CPUs). If you’re curious what it takes to cool that baby down, Bland said, “We have 24 inch in diameter pipes that we run 42 degree Fahrenheit cold water through to just cool this computer.”

Titan supercomputer behind the scenes

Knowing that Titan is a hybrid that utilizes GPUs as well as CPUs, if you like to play video games and also would like to help science, then here’s a thought: Can gamers help save the world by playing one game at a time?  Yes, according to Steve Scott, chief technology officer for NVIDIA, who said, "So when you go out and download and play the latest video game, you actually are helping to advance science." Tuck that knowledge away for the next time someone complains, "Are you gaming again?"

Running hot and dangerously loud

Titan $100 million 20 petaflops supercomputer"The sound of 20 quadrillion calculations happening every second is dangerously loud," according to BBC. “Anyone spending more than 15 minutes in the same room with the Titan supercomputer must wear earplugs or risk permanent hearing damage. The din in the room will not come from the computer's 40,000 whirring processors, but from the fans and water pipes cooling them. If the dull roar surrounding Titan were to fall silent, those tens of thousands of processors doing those thousands of trillions of calculations would melt right down into their racks.”

Bland said, “We don’t buy these big computers just because we want to have the biggest toy in the world; we need more powerful computers because we have really important problems that we’re trying to solve.” While there may be some debate whether to use the brute-force power of Amazon’s EC2 or GPUs, hackers and pentesters have used Amazon cloud to crack passwords – so can you imagine if Titan were used for evil? Or how many Bitcoins could that kind of processing power generate in a day? The world will never know because Titan’s purpose has been pegged to more or less save the world. Jeremy Smith, Director of the Center for Molecular Biophysics at ORNL, said, “We want to kill all known diseases, solve the world’s energy problems and understand the functioning of the living cell. So that’s really a question of really high throughput brute force number crunching.”

Titan and the TOP500 ranking for fastest supercomputer

Titan is an upgrade from ORNL’s Jaguar supercomputer and has been in the works since 2009. According to ORNL, “The Cray XK7 system contains 18,688 nodes, with each holding a 16-core AMD Opteron 6274 processor and an NVIDIA Tesla K20 graphics processing unit (GPU) accelerator. Titan also has more than 700 terabytes of memory.”

Titan may theoretically be the fastest computer in the world, but we won’t know for certain for another few weeks until the next TOP500 ranking of the world’s fastest supercomputers. The race is expected to be close whether or not Titan can beat out another U.S. government supercomputer called Sequoia.  IBM's "Sequoia" BlueGene/Q supercomputer at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California is top dog right now on the official Top500 list. Either way, Popular Science said, “Titan will be the biggest and fastest open science computer today.”

Oak Ridge National Labs’ Titan supercomputer can perform 20 thousand trillion calculations per second, or 20 petaflops

Titan’s supercomputer successor will be an exascale

The next ORNL supercomputer is to be an exascale, meaning it will be a thousand times more powerful than Titan and capable of doing one quintillion calculations per second. A mindboggling quintillion is a one with 18 zeroes after it. Exascale power is supposed to “provide enough power to simulate every single atom in a whole living cell,” Smith explained. For medical applications, it could help scientists try to predict if something would work as new drug and all the side effects that drug might have. And how much power might that take? Bland said, "If we just scaled up what we're doing today, it would take a couple of nuclear power plants to power." Since the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) ponies up the dough to pay the power bill, the DOE wants the exascale supercomputer to run on 20 megawatts of electricity or less by 2020.

All images courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory