EU industry ministers have signed off on a €1 billion project to build the world’s fastest computer by 2023 in an effort to compete with China, the US, and Japan. According to the commision, the new initiative is “crucial for the EU’s competitiveness and independence in the data economy.” Apart from demonstrating Europe’s technical prowess, the technologies being developed are expected to advance the machine learning and data analytics fields. Furthermore, governments and research institutions need supercomputers to perform highly complex computations in areas spanning from weather forecasting to DNA sequencing.
The project is set to begin in 2019 and will be managed by the new European High-Performance Computing (EuroHPC), a Luxembourg-based entity set up to pool European resources into developing top-of-the-range exascale supercomputers ― computers capable of performing a billion billion calculations per second ― for processing big data. The Joint Undertaking has two main goals:
- Developing a pan-European supercomputing infrastructure
- Supporting research and innovation activities focused on developing a European supercomputing ecosystem
The organization is set to receive €486 million from the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 research budget, and a similar amount from 25 member states. Europe is hoping to build at least two supercomputers that are among the top 5 in the world and two others that will rank in the top 25. The expectation is that the supercomputing resources will be made available to a large number of public and private users, including small and medium-sized enterprises, in order to bolster European high tech industries. In addition, the initial billion-euro investment may be topped up by €2.7 billion that has been set aside by the Commission in the 2021-2027 EU budget for post-exascale machines, some of which could be based on quantum computing technology.
At present, there are 105 supercomputers in Europe, however, the highest performing machines are in the US and China ― China launched the world-first exascale prototype in August. The highly-touted exascale goal may not be a worthy aim beyond just a few supercomputers since very few computing problems can take advantage of this scale anyway. Arguably more important than reaching exascale status are the development of accompanying software required to continue scaling up these systems and finding more efficient architectures since the power required to feed these supercomputing beasts would require millions of euros.
The fastest computer in Europe, currently located in non-EU Switzerland, uses Chinese-made microprocessors but is still 12 times slower than China’s Sunway TaihuLight, which can perform 93 quadrillion calculations per second. Chips for 90% of all supercomputers in the world are made by Intel of Silicon Valley. The EU is hoping to create the first generation of home-grown high-performance computer processors. Supercomputing hardware expertise in Europe is still lagging, as the EU rightfully acknowledges, “The European HPC technology supply chain is still weak and the integration of European technologies into operational HPC machines remains insignificant.”
Currently, few companies in Europe make HPC systems, therefore, rustling together a highly competitive native ecosystem that can deliver the goods on time for a full-scale system deployment in 2023 will be challenging, if not impossible. Although, now that EU member states are cooperating rather than competing, this ambitious goal may be more achievable.