by Roy Kim

When the massive Titan supercomputer goes live this fall at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), it will be positioned to take the title as the world’s fastest supercomputer to the U.S.

That makes for great headlines, but, as researchers shared during a session at NVIDIA’s GPU Technology Conference (GTC) Tuesday, Titan’s impact will be a dramatic breakthough in scientific computing.

Nearly three years after Jeff Nichols, ORNL’s associate lab director for Computing and Computational Sciences, joined NVIDIA CEO and co-founder Jen-Hsun Huang on stage at GTC 2009, Nichols and several scientists have big plans for Titan—which is being be built by Cray.

Jack Wells leading the Titan session

“The whole system is an upgrade,” said Jack Wells, director of science at ORNL, in describing how Oak Ridge’s current Jaguar supercomputer is being transformed into Titan. ORNL is transitioning from Cray’s XT5 compute blades to their XK6 compute blades, which use hybrid chipsets comprised of AMD Opteron CPUs and NVIDIA Tesla GPUs. Application benchmarks conducted thus far have demonstrated that the XK6 is yielding performance improvements ranging from 50 percent to 230 percent compared with the XT5.

Wells said Titan is expected to deliver breakthrough science for the Energy Department (which ORNL is associated with), the supercomputing industry and the nation at large. More specifically, it’s expected to enable advances in research of earth system science, fundamental science and energy. It will also benefit from NVIDIA’s new Kepler high-performance computing architecture, announced by Jen-Hsun at his GTC Opening Keynote. Titan will incorporate nearly 15,000 Kepler GPUs.

Transforming the Jaguar system into Titan will also increase the number of processing cores in play. “To take advantage of the vastly larger parallelism in Titan, users need to use hierarchical parallelism in their codes,” according to Jack.

One of the early applications highlighted during the series of Titan-related sessions is an effort at Sandia National Laboratories to research methods for reducing the environmental impact of fossil fuels.

Jacqueline Chen, from Sandia’s combustion research facility and the Chinese Institute of Engineers’ 2009 Asian American Engineer of the Year, said that fossil fuels account for 83 percent of energy use in the U.S. Transportation alone accounts for two-thirds of petroleum usage and one-fourth of all CO2 emissions. National goals call to reduce petroleum use 25 percent by 2020 and reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. Clearly, scientific research will play a key role in meeting those goals.

Jacqueline’s team will leverage the power of Titan through ORNL’s Innovative and Novel Computational Impact on Theory and Experiment (INCITE) program, which helps research teams conduct computing-intensive, large-scale research projects that promise to advance science and engineering.