More computing power boosts knowledge discovery, and helps in more realistic simulation and experiments, Nichols said, adding that Titan will help the U.S. in research areas like biosciences, climate, energy and space.
For example, ORNL conducts research on neutron sciences, which includes the building of combustion engines that deliver lower emissions and higher efficiency. Those experiments are related to the country's economy, environment and national security, and faster supercomputers like Titan are advancing research quicker in that area, Nichols said.
Titan is a Cray XK7 supercomputer, which pairs 18,688 Advanced Micro Devices 16-core Opteron 6274 CPUs with 18,688 Nvidia Tesla K20 GPUs (graphics processing units). Graphics processors provide faster execution of some scientific and math applications, while CPUs are better for serial processing. By harnessing the joint computing power of CPUs and GPUs, supercomputers are able to provide results in the most power-efficient way, said Steve Scott, chief technology officer of the Tesla product line at Nvidia.
Titan is built into 200 server cabinets, which is the same size as Jaguar. ORNL upgraded by moving to 16-core CPUs and the latest graphics processors, which are faster and more power efficient. Titan has 700TB of memory.
Titan consumes about 9 megawatts of power and the energy costs for running the supercomputer could add up to $10 million a year, Nichols said. The DOE is willing to absorb the cost because it knows that a sophisticated research program is needed, Nichols said.
The next milestone for supercomputers is to reach exaflop performance, which is about 1,000 petaflops, by 2018. ORNL upgrades the supercomputer at a three to four year clip, and Nichols expects a major upgrade to Titan in 2016. He also hopes an exaflop system will be in place at ORNL by 2020, though he added nothing was certain.
"We have to think about making the case for the 2020 exascale machine or 2016 machine. We have to start talking to vendors about those machines," Nichols said.