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Japan's Riken winds down 'K' supercomputer; successor 'Fugaku' to go online in 2021

Japan's K supercomputer is seen at the Riken Center for Computational Science, formerly the Riken Advanced Institute for Computational Science, in Kobe's Chuo Ward on Jan. 7, 2016. (Mainichi/Kentaro Ikushima)

OSAKA -- The government-backed Riken research institute is set to pull the plug on its 'K' supercomputer on Aug. 30, ending the seven-year run of what was once ranked the world's most powerful supercomputer.

Riken ended shared academic and industrial use of the system in Kobe, western Japan, on Aug. 16. The institute is now making preparations to turn K off for good, including backing up data.

Riken and Fujitsu Ltd. are currently developing the next-generation "Fugaku" supercomputer to succeed K, aiming to flip the "on" switch in 2021.

Development of K started in 2006. It was named for the Japanese numeral "kei (10 quadrillion)," as it can perform 10 quadrillion operations per second. In 2009, the project's budget was partially cut during screening by the administration of the then Democratic Party of Japan, when one of its lawmakers asked, "What's wrong with being No. 2?" Still, around 111.1 billion yen was spent on K, which began operating in September 2012.

In 2011, while it was still in development, K was ranked the world's fastest supercomputer.

According to Riken, K was used by a total of about 11,000 researchers and at least 200 companies. Its vast computational power was harnessed for progress in disaster prevention research, including the development of software to simultaneously predict massive earthquakes, tsunami and the movement of the Earth's crust, as well as studies to forecast typhoons with high accuracy.

K also racked up achievements in the medical field, such as reconstructing a computer-simulated heart at the molecular level, leading to developments in pathology research and identifying surgical options. This project alone contributed to some 1,300 academic papers.

However, K had sunk to 20th place in performance rankings released this past June amid fierce global competition to build the most powerful supercomputer. Those developed in the United States and China topped the list.

Co-development of Fugaku started in 2014, and the system is expected to achieve a computational power of 400 quadrillion operations per second -- more than double the computational power of world's fastest supercomputer Summit, built by U.S. technology firm IBM. In a simulation, Fugaku outperformed K by a maximum of a hundredfold-plus.

Fugaku has the potential to become the world's fastest supercomputer. However, there is little room for optimism since it is expected that "exascale supercomputers," that run at least 100 times faster than K, will become mainstream in the 2020s.

The Japanese government has cited nine major challenges, such as the realization of a society in which people live long healthy lives as well as issues related to disaster prevention and energy, for research using Fugaku.

(Japanese original by Koki Matsumoto, Osaka Science & Environment News Department)

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