Intelligence agency wants a superconducting, super cool, supercomputer

IARPA wants to go exaflop

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If there’s a away to overcome the power and cooling requirements to build a supercomputer beyond exaflop – that’s over 1,000 petaflops, about 30 times faster than the current fastest supercomputer -- researchers at Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) want to find it.

One exaflop equals one quintillion (a quintillion is 1 followed by 18 zeros) calculations per second. It is the next great goal in supercomputing, according to a recent ComputerWorld article.

The group, which operates as part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence this week awarded undisclosed sums to IBM, Raytheon-BBN and Northrop Grumman Corporation to start the process of building what it calls the C3 or Cryogenic Computer Complexity program.

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“The power, space, and cooling requirements for current supercomputers based on [CMOS] technology are becoming unmanageable,” said Marc Manheimer, C3 program manager at IARPA in a statement. “Computers based on superconducting logic integrated with new kinds of cryogenic memory will allow expansion of current computing facilities while staying within space and energy budgets, and may enable supercomputer development beyond the exascale.”

“Superconducting computing research currently consists of a few, scattered efforts with no initiative focused on advancing the field overall. Major research challenges include insufficient memory, insufficient integration density, and no realization of complete computing systems. The C3 Program will address these challenges with the goal of establishing superconducting computing as a long-term solution to the power- cooling problem and a successor to end-of-roadmap CMOS for high performance computing. Success of C3 will pave the way to a new generation of superconducting computers that are far more energy efficient than end-of-roadmap CMOS and scalable to practical application,” IARPA stated.

Conventional computing systems, which are based on complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) switching devices and normal metal interconnects, appear to have no path to be able to increase energy efficiency fast enough to keep up with increasing demands for computation. Superconductors on the other hand can operate at near absolute zero (minus 273 degrees Celsius), keeping heat to a minimum amongst circuits and transistors, IARPA stated.

IARPA expects that the C3 program will be a five-year, two-phase program. Phase one, which encompasses the first three years, serves primarily to develop the technologies that are required to demonstrate a small superconducting processor. Phase two, for the final two years, will integrate those new technologies into a small-scale working model of a superconducting computer.

IARPA said C3 program key components will include:

  1. Cryogenic memory: New approaches to enable high performance computing systems with greatly improved memory capacity and energy efficiency.
  2. Logic, communications and systems: Development of advanced superconducting circuits and integration with memory and other components for demonstration of a limited superconducting computer system on which to measure performance metrics.

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