Core competency: PM tech editor Glenn Derene nerds it up with US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu about the world’s fastest computers.
Q Have you had any personal experience with supercomputers in your research career?
A When I was an undergraduate at the University of Rochester, I had a summer job where I programmed Control Data supercomputers. Later, when I was working at Stanford (University) and Berkeley (National Lab), I was on the board of directors for the graphics chip-maker Nvidia. Today, Nvidia’s GPU chips are used in four of the top 10 supercomputers in the world.
Q Today’s fastest computers operate in petaflops (1 015 operations per second), and there’s a national initiative to move towards exascale computing, which would increase processing speeds a thousandfold. How much computer do we really need?
A When you’re doing baby calculations – Excel calculations and graphing – your laptop is all you really need. For solving differential equations, the current generation of supercomputers is pretty good. But once you go into big-time simulations – climate or jet engine or fuel injection – for the next factor of 100 to maybe 1 000, you want more.
Q What effect have supercomputers had on global competitiveness?
A (Supercomputers are) directly related to a country’s industrial sophistication. But it’s deeper than being the biggest guy on the block. At the Department of Energy, we see supercomputing as being more and more of an industrial tool. The benefits filter down to everything from the aerodynamics of cars and trucks and airplanes to the efficiency of jet engines and high-performance buildings.