With the world’s first exascale supercomputer now fully open for scientific business, researchers can thank the early users who helped get the machine up to speed.

Frontier set a new record for computational power when the HPE Cray EX supercomputer at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory debuted in May 2022 at 1.1 exaflops, or 1.1 quintillion calculations per second. That’s a billion billion operations, equal to the entire population of Earth working in concert for more than four years.

Frontier opened to full operations in April 2023, granting more than 1,200 scientific users access to its circuits to grapple with more than 160 problems that range from designing nuclear fusion reactors to modeling potential cures for cancer to unraveling the origins of the universe. But the big machine wouldn’t be ready so soon if not for the work of the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility’s Center for Accelerated Application Readiness, or CAAR, which enlisted eight research teams to test-drive the system and work out the kinks.

CAAR brought together scientific users, OLCF computing experts, vendors and developers to work through software applications and figure out how to wring the best possible performance from the system. For the teams, the program offers a head start at solving their grand challenges and learning how to adapt their project codes to the system’s architecture; for the OLCF and vendors, it’s a heads-up on which tweaks to make so the system works as needed.

“The early users’ help has been critical in preparing Frontier,” said ORNL’s Reuben Budiardja, a computational scientist who worked with the early users and presented a paper on the efforts at the International Supercomputing Conference 2023 in May. “They’ve helped us solve many early software issues and get the hardware running at full capacity. It’s been a partnership to ready Frontier for production and lay a scientific foundation as we go.”

CAAR’s origin dates back two supercomputing generations to Titan, the OLCF’s 27-petaflop Cray XK7 system that marked a breakthrough in high-performance computing by combining CPUs, which act as the machine’s brains, with GPUs, which help lighten the computational load for the CPUs and kick processing speeds into high gear while keeping energy demands down. CAAR teams have helped test every OLCF supercomputer since then: Summit, which previously held the title of world’s fastest computer at 200 petaflops, or 200 quadrillion calculations per second, and now Frontier.

The eight teams that took part in CAAR for Frontier were:

  • Cholla, led by the University of Pittsburgh’s Evan Schneider, which seeks to simulate a galaxy comparable to the Milky Way and model the formation of stars.
  • Combinatorial Metrics, or CoMet, led by ORNL’s Dan Jacobson, which seeks to model complex biological systems for everything from bioenergy research to clinical genomics.