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Titan supercomputer may be world's fastest, powered by video game hardware advancements

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

A new Cray supercomputer named Titan, perhaps the world's fastest, goes live at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory this week. It's capable of crunching 20 petaflops — or 20 quadrillion floating point operation calculations per second — according to Nvidia, the company that provided more than 18,000 GPUs to Cray to power the massive computer.

Titan's computing prowess has the graphical demands of video game players to thank. The parallel processing, low power consumption GPUs that handle 90 percent of Titan's heavy lifting make for a faster computer with a lower electric bill.

According to an NPR report on Titan, the supercomputer carries a $100 million price tag and will suck up $9 million in electricity annually. Using traditional CPUs, says project director Buddy Bland, Titan's annual electric bill would be upwards of $30 million.

"One challenge in supercomputers today is power consumption," said Jeff Nichols, associate laboratory director for computing and computational sciences in a Titan news release. "Combining GPUs and CPUs in a single system requires less power than CPUs alone and is a responsible move toward lowering our carbon footprint. Titan will provide unprecedented computing power for research in energy, climate change, materials and other disciplines to enable scientific leadership."

Researchers plan to model real world simulations of nuclear power plants, large-molecule hydrocarbon fuel combustion, analysis of proteins and weather patterns on Titan's GPUs.

"The kind of physical things that happen in a game, it turns out those things happen in nature as well," says Bronson Messer, acting group leader for scientific computing at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility. "These are exactly the kinds of problems we're trying to solve in a lot of scientific questions, from combustion to climate."

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