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DARPA awards $76.6m supercomputer challenge

Small scale ExtremeScale

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If you were thinking about entering the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's ExtremeScale supercomputing challenge issued in March, you missed your chance. DARPA's awarded grants to four design teams, plus another that'll run benchmarks on the HPC prototypes.

The heavy hitters in the HPC community as well as in academia in the US were awarded grants to design prototype machines for the Ubiquitous High Performance Computing ExtremeScale challenge.

There are a lot of different goals, as we detailed in March, but the upshot is that DARPA wants a petaflops supercomputer, including networking, storage, and compute elements as well as cooling, to be crammed in a space a little larger than a standard server rack - 24 inches wide by 78 inches high and 40 inches deep - and consume only 57 kilowatts to power and cool the device.

The machine has to deliver a peak petaflops of performance and 50 gigaflops per watt sustained power efficiency while running the Linpack Fortran number-crunching test. The system has to be able to do single-precision and double-precision math, 16-bit, 32-bi, and 64-bit integer math, and chew on a streaming sensor array like you might have scanning the skies of incoming missiles.

DARPA has also asked for parallel programming to be made easier on these machines than it currently is on massively parallel CPU or CPU-GPU hybrids, for multiple ExtremeScale units to be linked together, and for the machines to run five specific workloads.

These include a massive streaming sensor data problem, a large dynamic graph-based informatics problem, a decision problem that includes search with hypothesis testing and planning, and two as-yet-unnamed applications culled from the IT bowels of the Department of Defense.

Nvidia and Intel are in

The IT community players that have been granted ExtremeScale UHPC contracts today by DARPA include one team led by Intel and another from Nvidia. Intel has not yet detailed who is on its team or what its award is, but Nvidia said it has tapped supercomputer maker Cray, the US Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and six universities to be on its team.

Nvidia said it was awarded $25m to pursue the ExtremeScale impossible dream. Nvidia is still working out the final details on what those six universities will be doing.

Sources at Nvidia told us that the total ExtremeScale program is budgeted with $100m, but a DARPA spokesperson was still chasing down the numbers to confirm this when we went to press. On Wednesday morning, two days after the announcement, DARPA did the math and said the total award for the UHPC ExtremeScale contracts was $76.6m.

Oak Ridge and Nvidia are already working on hybrid CPU-GPU compute clusters, and last October announced the DOE had kicked in funds to study the use of Nvidia Tesla GPUs in x64 clusters.

Oak Ridge is also, of course, where the 1.76 petaflops Jaguar Cray Opteron-Linux cluster is housed as well. So, in essence, DARPA is paying for work that the Nvidia team was already pursuing piecemeal, but shaping it for a particular physical environment and code set. Anything worth selling once is worth selling two, or maybe three times.

Intel had aspirations for its ill-fated Larrabee GPU, but something went terribly wrong with that project and Larrabee was killed off as a discrete graphics processor in May and then the core guts of the project was reinvented as the Knights GPU co-processor in June.

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