By Matthew Dublin
In 1976, the Cray-1 supercomputer stood at six-feet tall and was the most powerful computer ever built. Thanks to Moore’s Law, however, the Cray-1 is now as powerful as the first generation iPhone. But recently, Moore’s Law has in a sense peaked as processors cannot be built to work much faster due to heat production, which would cause failures as the tiny transistors literally start melting. So, supercomputer designers have been forced to build increasingly larger systems in order to cram more blades into one system. Despite the advances in processor hardware design, power efficiency has been neglected, as energy consumption has increased both to power the hardware as well as the robust cooling systems necessary for removing all of the heat generated by these giant computers.
Case in point is the latest version of the Cray supercomputer, the Cray XE6, housed at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL). Called Hopper, this massive system is the eight most powerful in the world and uses about three megawatts of electricity, roughly the same amount as 2,000 homes. According to an interview with John Shaft, a researcher at LBNL, in less than ten years from now, the much anticipated exascale class of supercomputers will consume about 100 megawatts of power — the amount of power consumed by a small U.S. city such as Novato, CA. The irony of a supercomputer used to model climate change burning up this amount of energy is not lost on Shaft, who says that chip makers need to start applying the same approach used to develop powerful and energy efficient mobile phone technology to HPC hardware design.
Below is a KQED News interview with Shaft and Dag Spicer, curator at the Computer History Museum in San Franscisco, discussing the history of supercomputers and Moore's Law.