Thomas Zacharia Leads America’s Fastest Supercomputer Project  
by: Francis C. Assisi

Boston, 18 May -- America has set out to build the world’s fastest supercomputer, with Dr. Thomas Zacharia, a Kerala-born Indian American, at the helm.

Zacharia is Associate Laboratory Director for High Performance Computing, and Director, Computer Science and Mathematics Division, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

In this capacity, he leads the Laboratory´s agenda in Terascale Computing and Simulation Science in support of DOE´s missions in advancing science, national security, energy security and sustainable development.

"The supercomputer will boost scientific computation to a scale that challenges the threshold of human comprehension," said Zacharia. "The expansion of computational power will usher in a new era of scientific discovery and help restore American leadership in climate modeling, biology, fusion energy and other fields."

According to Zacharia, this scale-up in computing capabilities is hugely important for the U.S. science enterprise, with a near-term need for 50 to 100 teraflops of computing power. Currently Japan holds the fastest-supercomputer title with its Earth Simulator, which has 40-teraflop capability.

Zacharia announced that ORNL has been chosen to lead a partnership with the goal of building the most powerful supercomputer by 2007. The Department of Energy awarded the lab a US$25 million contract for the effort. Zacharia said that having faster supercomputing power in the United States will be a boon for the country.

Development will be done by combining partnerships, researchers, new buildings and equipment. The blend of these different components is referred to as the National Leadership Computing Facility (NLCF). The five-year plan will pool computational resources for a sustained capacity of 50 teraflops (50 trillion calculations per second), with a peak capacity of more than 250 teraflops.

ORNL expects to reach the 45-teraflop mark by late this year or early 2005, and Zacharia has plans to hit the 100-teraflop level in 2006.

Need for Speed

The push to craft a faster supercomputer is not simply rooted in a desire to find out how much computing power can be created, Zacharia said. Rather, speedier technology will aid in science and technology to such a degree that it will actually change how science is done.

"It´s not just a big computer that will come out of this," he said. "It´s the creation of a new national scientific fabric."

He noted that there are already fundamental changes in how sciences like nanotechnology and biotechnology are approached because of computing power. With even more supercomputing speed, Zacharia predicted, there will be breakthrough discoveries in climate forecasting, biology and fusion energy, among other fields.

"We will be able to investigate matter in a new way," he said. "It will allow us to understand the world we live in on a fundamental level."

Zacharia noted that having faster supercomputing power in the United States not only will aid global scientific efforts, but also will be a boon for the country. "As a nation, we have to innovate faster than the rest of the world," he said. "Clearly, this technology will have an impact for all nations, but it´s in our best interest to have it here for economic competitiveness and faster innovation" Zacharia added.

Military analysts have noted that such a supercomputer also would be handy for military applications, as it would eliminate the need for real-world testing.

Zacharia noted that beyond scientific applications, such a powerful supercomputer also could be used for corporate strategies. For example, an automaker spends about US$2 billion to design a car and bring it to market. Using a supercomputer, design and production time could be reduced, lowering costs significantly. He maintains that this, in turn, would have a powerful effect on the nation´s economy.

“It allows the country to expand its leadership position in the world and maintain it," he said.

According to Zacharia, the supercomputers that are already at ORNL are enabling scientists in a number of fields to make discoveries that could not be made through either theoretical or experimental research. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is home to some of the most powerful open, or unclassified, computers in the nation.

These recently acquired supercomputers will soon give the Department of Energy´s Center for Computational Sciences (CCS) at ORNL a total computing speed approaching 6 teraflops, or 6 trillion arithmetic calculations per second. They have also advanced ORNL´s leadership role in computational science and enabled scientific discovery that is not possible without high-performance computing.

“From every corner of science a revolution is under way because of the growing amount of data being generated and the rapid increase in scientific understanding resulting from applying advanced computational science tools to these data” explains Zacharia.

Zacharia predicts: “Within the next five years, computers 1000 times faster than those available to the scientific community today will be operating. These dramatic boosts in supercomputing power must be matched by corresponding increases in the capabilities of scientific modeling and simulation codes. Researchers across the Laboratory have teamed together to carry out the rigorous interdisciplinary effort of designing, building, tuning, integrating, and using codes to accelerate our solutions of complex scientific problems.”

“As we build state-of-the-art computing facilities, bring new computers on line, and support exciting new science, we are creating a leading scientific enterprise that will help advance the revolution in science.”

As example Zacharia predicts, "Biology is undergoing a major transformation that will be enabled and ultimately driven by computation."

And, as Ernie Moniz, then Department of Energy undersecretary, said at the June 20, 2000, dedication of ORNL´s new supercomputers, these machines are "extraordinary tools for extraordinary science." He noted further that “simulation using teraflop computers will be a tool of scientific discovery. Simulation will play an important role in the bridging from the molecular level to engineering systems to get the needed efficiencies..." to solve energy, environmental, materials, and medical problems.

Already calculations performed using ORNL computers and codes have led to the location of disease-causing genes. Computer modeling at ORNL helped IBM better understand the use of giant magnetoresistance (GMR) for reading data while the company was developing quarter-size disk drives for digital cameras. GMR simulation at ORNL has also influenced Seagate´s new designs of disk drives for desktop computers.

Data from ORNL’s supercomputer may also help predict which lightweight materials considered candidates for future, highly-efficient cars will likely hold up as well in a crash as today´s heavier steel cars; this approach saves money and reduces waste since crunching numbers is much cheaper than crunching cars in real crash tests.

A native of Kochi in Kerala, Zacharia earned his Ph.D. (1987) in Materials Science from Clarkson University, his M.S. (1984) from the University of Mississippi and the B.S. (1980) in Mechanical Engineering from the Regional Engineering College, Karnataka. Zacharia began his research career as a postdoctoral fellow at ORNL in 1987, and became a research staff member in the Metals and Ceramics Division in 1989. He established and served as Group Leader of the Materials Process Modeling Group in 1993 and four years later became the Director of the Computer Science and Mathematics Division. Dr. Zacharia was appointed Associate Laboratory Director in 2001.

Dr. Zacharia´s research in high performance computing and computational sciences has resulted in more than 100 scientific publications and two U.S. Patents.


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