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American intelligence agencies building new supercomputer

Current supercomputing utilizes technology that relies on tens of megawatts and requires large amounts of physical space to house the infrastructure and power and cool the components.

By JC Sevcik
American intelligence agencies building new supercomputer
The Blue Gene/P supercomputer at Argonne National Lab. American intelligence agencies announced plans to develop a superconducting supercomputer Friday. Argonne National Laboratory/Flickr

WASHINGTON, Dec. 5 (UPI) -- American intelligence agencies announced plans Friday to develop and build a new superconducting supercomputer, one which would increase current computing capacity while simultaneously reducing the energy consumption and physical footprint of the machines.

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, a branch of the U.S. intelligence community, said in a press release that the agency has embarked on a multi-year research effort called the Cryogenic Computer Complexity program, or C3.

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Current supercomputing utilizes technology that relies on tens of megawatts and requires large amounts of physical space to house the infrastructure and power and cool the components.

C3 hopes to use recent breakthroughs in supercomputing technologies — "new families of superconducting logic without static power dissipation and new ideas for energy efficient cryogenic memory" — to construct a superconducting supercomputer with "a simplified cooling infrastructure and a greatly reduced footprint."

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"The power, space, and cooling requirements for current supercomputers based on complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology are becoming unmanageable," said Marc Manheimer, C3 program manager at IARPA.

"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," Manheimer said.

The exascale refers to the computational limits of current supercomputing technology, specifically, the exaFLOP barrier.

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FLOPS, or Floating Point Operations per Second, is the measurement of a computer's performance.

An exaFLOP is a billion billion (or one quintillion) calculations per second.

The international intelligence community has been competing to outpace each other and build the first computer to break the exaFLOP barrier for some time, but scaling out contemporary CMOS technologies to construct computers capable of exaFLOP calculations would require hundreds of megawatts to power, necessitating an energy source with an output equal to that of a single small nuclear reactor.

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C3 hopes to change that by developing "a new generation of superconducting supercomputers that are far more energy efficient."

Currently the record for single computer speed is China's Tianhe-2, ranked the world's fastest with a record of 33.86 petaFLOPS in June of 2013 (a petaFLOP being equal to one thousand million calculations per second).

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The record for distributed computing speed — using a network of linked computers to boost processing — is also held by China: Its 55-petaFLOP Milky Way 2, using the BOINC infrastructure, computes at 471 teraFLOPS as of July, 2014.

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C3's stated mission is to out-compute America's enemies: "IARPA invests in high-risk, high-payoff research programs that have the potential to provide our nation with an overwhelming intelligence advantage over our future adversaries," the release said.

But in the wake of National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's infamous leak, it's become common knowledge that America's supercomputing capabilities are also used to power the NSA's domestic surveillance. In his 2008 book, The Shadow Factory, best-selling author and journalist James Bamford reported that the NSA told the Pentagon it would need an exaFLOP computer by 2018, then reported on the agency's progress in 2012.

The C3 program is in keeping with Bamford's benchmark.

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To outpace its international competitors in the intelligence and information technology race, the United States awarded research contracts for its C3 program to IBM, Raytheon-BBN and Northrop Grumman Corp., according to the announcement.

The only problem?

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A recent hack of the National Weather Services networks by the Chinese was attributed to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's delays in upgrading its computing capacity (and by extension, its cyber-security). NOAA's long-term agreement for supercomputing services with IBM had come under review by the Treasury Department after a branch of the company was acquired by Chinese firm Lenovo. Congress was concerned over the national security implications of allowing the contract to continue.

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No word on whether the same conflict exists in IARPA's contract with IBM.

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