The competition between the U.S. and China for supercomputer supremacy is entering a new phase, with the U.S. poised to protect its lead on the backs of two new machines from Seattle-based Cray.
The supercomputer maker inked its second deal in less than two months with the Department of Energy for systems designed to perform more than a quintillion calculations per second, a sevenfold increase over the current fastest machine, which is less than a year old.
One of the Cray computers would be the world’s most powerful and most expensive, capable of more than 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 calculations per second when it comes online in 2021.
Under the $600 million “Frontier” contract, Cray would develop technology and build that machine using AMD chips for Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. It is a massive undertaking, weighing as much as 35 school buses and costing more than any other computer.
So-called “exascale” computing capabilities should enable researchers to simulate and study things like fusion energy, the global climate and stellar explosions in greater detail and faster than before. These systems also promise advancements in artificial intelligence (A.I.).
“Frontier’s record-breaking performance will ensure our country’s ability to lead the world in science that improves the lives and economic prosperity of all Americans and the entire world,” Energy Secretary Rick Perry said in announcing the contract.
Last year, Oak Ridge’s “Summit” supercomputer, built by IBM, reclaimed the title of world’s fastest. It was the first time in five years that a U.S. system held the No. 1 position in global supercomputer rankings, displacing a Chinese system. But China has a large and growing share of the top 500 systems — 45 percent at the last count in November.
Supercomputer performance is a closely watched proxy of national scientific and technological achievement, though corporations now run more than half of the world’s fastest machines.
Cray aims to make its technology a foundation for the exascale era, and so far in 2019, it’s off to a good start. The Frontier contract win follows a $500 million deal announced in March, in which Cray will build another exascale supercomputer based on Intel chips for Argonne National Laboratory.
Cray built 49 of the world’s current top 500 fastest supercomputers, behind Lenovo, Inspur and Sugon — all Chinese vendors.
While the full value of the Energy Department contracts is contingent on successful development of prototype systems and adequate government funding, the deals point to a turnaround at Cray.
In 2016, CEO Peter Ungaro warned of a market slowdown and the company sought to build its commercial business. Cray recorded more than $200 million in losses during the last two years, and laid off 15 percent of its staff in 2017. The company’s revenue grew 16% in 2018 to $455.9 million.
Cray shares gained more than 14% in Tuesday trading to finish at $29.97, the highest level since July 2016.
A Cray representative said the company expects to ramp up hiring in research and development and service as a result of the contract awards. The company’s corporate headquarters is in downtown Seattle, but only 120 of its 1,300 employees work there. The rest are in other offices and a manufacturing facility in Chippewa Falls, Wis.