Supercomputers: The new superpowers of the economy

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Supercomputers: The new superpowers of the economy

We asked the head of Atos SE where the frist exaflop computer will be built. He thinks Europe has a good shot with supercomputers.

by Thierry Breton

Supercomputers: Thierry Breton about the new superpowers of the Economy

Thierry Breton is CEO of Atos SE, Europe’s largest IT service company. He was formerly a professor at Harvard Business School and served from 2005 to 2007 as Finance Minister of France.

What organization — company, university, research institute, city, or state — could afford to waste 90% of its resources? You don’t have to be a Minister of the Economy to know the answer: None. And yet, organizations are wasting their data even though it represents vast potential for value creation. No less than 90% of the value of data
remains untapped as it does not undergo any processing whatsoever. From the automotive industry to medicine, data is everywhere. It is thanks to the use and modeling of
data that iconic platforms like Uber and Airbnb have emerged. It is also thanks to this enhancement of data use that ‘traditional’ professions are gradually re-inventing themselves. The automotive industry is now devoted to the autonomous car, medicine is counting on ultra-personalized molecules to care for individuals, and in meteorology it will soon be possible value of their data. And then, due to a lack of computing power, it is difficult to process the veritable data deluge generated by our activities each day in real time (prescriptive analytics).

More data than grains of sand on the planet

The exponential increase in data is attributable in particular to smart objects. The number of these is set to explode, reaching the symbolic threshold of 50 billion connected objects around the world in 2020. By this time, 40 zettabytes – that is 40 thousand billion billion pieces of usable data – will be generated. More than the number of grains of sand on the Earth. Not only do we need to count, identify and isolate these grains of sand, we also have to be able to link them to each other at any given moment. To achieve this, we need exceptionally powerful supercomputers known as high-performance computers (HPC).

A billion billion operations per second with supercomputers

Today, a petaflop supercomputer – that is, a computer capable of processing a million billion operations a second – represents the equivalent of 140,000 PCs. The Bull Sequana, launched by Atos last month, is in the process of being installed at the CEA (the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission) and, by 2020, will be as powerful as 20 million PCs. Indeed it will soon be capable of processing an exaflop, or a billion billion operations per second. While multiplying the computing capacity by 150 presents one challenge, handling the required energy consumption will be quite another. At current consumption rates, it would mean devouring 400MW of power, equivalent to the annual consumption of a town with 60,000 inhabitants or an entire unit of a nuclear power station. That is why, in the construction of the world’s most efcient supercomputer, the Atos teams reduced the power consumption by a factor of 20, and the volume by a factor of 10. Whereas previously it would have
needed the whole floor of a building to accommodate it, a Bull Sequana now takes up no more space than a cupboard – to such an extent that, when I presented our supercomputer to the French Minister of the Economy Emmanuel Macron, some playful photographers tried to get him to pose inside the machine.

Supercomputers Atos Bull Sequana

Smooth operator: Constructing the world’s most effcient supercomputer, the Atos teams reduced power consumption by a factor of 20 and volume by a factor of 10.

A supercomputer in every pocket?

Complete miniaturization is a challenge that we still have to tackle for this machine which, even today, still weighs several tons. So there’s a long way to go until we get to that stage – but don’t forget that the smartphone in your pocket is more powerful than the computers that sent people to the moon.
While the traditional physical limitations have certainly been a hindrance to following Moore’s Law, at Atos we are already working on the quantum computer for the post-2030 era. It is this constant thirst for innovation that motivates us and allows Europe to be fully engaged in the global race for computing power, alongside China and Japan – with the former US President Barack Obama having also challenged American scientists to build an exaflop supercomputer.

Europe in the global HPC race

In addition to questions of sovereignty, issues of economic growth, investment, relocation near to production, research and consumption sites, employment, and, above all, education today go hand in hand with data. All are reasons that commend the creation of a powerful ecosystem and a new program of European excellence. This is a position that I put to President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Junker, who has just emphasized the importance of using high-performance computing for the digitization of European industry. This is why, now more than ever, I encourage young people to make a firm commitment to studying science and to get more generally interested in technology.

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