Intel aims for a quintillion FLOPS by 2018

Intel's Kirk Skaugen made a public commitment to exascale computing at the International Supercomputing Conference this week, promising that his company would lead the charge in hitting the next computing milestone.

Exascale computing refers to a system capable of performing at an exaflop level, or one quintillion floating point operations per second. It's a rate that the world's fastest computers are some way away from achieving: the current leader of the TOP500 list, the K Computer, manages a 'mere' 8 petaflops, or 1/125th of that figure.

"We're trying to deliver 100x performance over today's systems, while only increasing power 2x" Skaugen told press at the ISC 2011 event yesterday. "It's our goal and our vision of getting to a 20MW machine," he claimed, referring to an exaflop-level computing system that pulls a surprisingly small amount of energy.

It may seem odd to refer to 20 megawatts as 'small,' but in terms of performance per watt it really is: the K Computer, which is one of the most energy efficient supercomputers around, draws 9.89MW for a performance figure of 825 megaflops per watt; by comparison, Skaugen's theoretical exaflop machine would hit an impressive figure of 50,000 megaflops per watt.

That's a massive leap in performance, and it's not something that will happen overnight. "These aren't things that we have all the answers to today," Skaugen admitted, but claimed that his company remains "committed" to the cause of exascale computing in a remarkably low power point.

"Today, we're kicking off our declaration on exascale," Skaugen claimed, aiming for a target of hitting exascale performance by 2018 in the ambitious power envelope. "This isn't something Intel can do alone," confessed Skaugen. "We need governments, institutions, and universities to be a key part of this, because no one company can do it alone."

While Intel's work on exascale computing - from impending products like the x86-addressable Knights Corner accelerator boards based on the Many Integrated Cores architecture to its three existing exascale research labs, which are likely to be joined by additional facilities in the near future - is impressive, the company isn't alone in this area. Supercomputing specialist Cray announced its own exascale vision back in 2009, which would see an exaflop-scale system constructed by 2020.