Peak Performance

Designed with general purpose users in mind, the Fugaku supercomputer has the performance and energy efficiency of a GPU-accelerated machine but remains easy to program.

PetaFLOPS for the pandemic

There’s a stop on Kobe’s Port Liner rail line called K Computer Mae, an homage to the last Japanese machine to summit the TOP500. But the automated trains have been running with plaques commemorating Fugaku’s success, and at the adjacent RIKEN Center for Computational Science (R-CCS), the K’s old red facade has been replaced with blue one emblazoned with an illustration of Mount Fuji.

Given Fugaku’s accolades, Japan’s highest peak is an appropriate image for the machine—‘Fugaku’ is an alternate name for Mount Fuji, and the two names share the Chinese character 富, meaning wealth. But leaders the project say it wasn’t built to win HPC races.

“Fugaku as a supercomputer has never been about ranking,” Satoshi Matsuoka, director of R-CCS, told Supercomputing Asia. “Rather, our goal was basically to achieve application results, and respond especially to important and difficult societal goals and problems.”

That aspiration was put to an early test by the novel coronavirus. In 2019, components of the K computer were being removed from R-CCS not long before COVID-19 cases began in December 2019, with full-fledged operations scheduled to begin only in April 2021.

By spring, however, the coronavirus caused global supply chain issues affecting the delivery of Fugaku components. Meanwhile, the center had received an appeal from the Japanese government asking whether the computer could be used in the fight against the virus as it was spreading quickly in Japan.

In March and April, Fugaku’s leaders quickly mobilized scientists to redeploy parts of Fugaku that were already up and running. The computer would be used for five projects: revealing the characteristics of the coronavirus; identifying therapeutic compounds; improving the diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19; insights into the spread of infections and socioeconomic impact; and other projects that could help in the battle against the pandemic.

Tim Hornyak is a Canadian writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who has worked in journalism for more than 20 years. He has written extensively about travel, food, technology, science, culture and business in Japan, as well as Japanese inventors, roboticists and Nobel Prize-winning scientists. He is the author of Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots and has contributed to several Lonely Planet travel guidebooks. He has lived in Tokyo for more than 15 years.

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