Supercomputer: French Atos plays in the big leagues

On an impeccable white floor, the battery of a large black cupboard whispers a strange language. Each has multiple computers that are connected to each other by a tangle of cords, all marked by a label. On the roof, electric wires provide this strange armada, while ground water valves are responsible for cooling the machines. “This is where we do the final testing before delivery to customers,” explains Vincent Sarakani, director of the Atos site in Angers. During our visit, it was a super computer for Italian universities that was tested. And not just one: it’s one of the five supercomputers that Atos must provide as part of the European Intensive Computing Program EuroHPC (European High Performance Computing).

Because, the public is not aware of it, the French group is the European leader of supercomputing and appears in the top 5 world of this strategic activity. However, these machines play a central role in basic research in health, energy or meteorology (including global warming). They are also critical in defense policy and more comprehensive in the field of artificial intelligence. After a slight air pocket in 2020, global demand is growing strongly and should represent 9 9 billion in 2023 and a potential 18 18 billion in 2025.

Facing heavyweights, American HPE (Hewlett-Packard Enterprise), Japanese Fujitsu or Chinese Lenovo, Atos expects to double its market share to 16% by then. For that, it could rely on the support of France and Europe, who have raised 1.8 billion and 8 billion euros, respectively, to enter the “excel” power circle, including those with calculators capable of operating more than 1 billion each. The power of the second 2 million desktop PCs.

“We started supercomputing 15 years ago, at the request of the CEA (Commission for Atomic Energy and Alternative Energy), with the aim of quantitatively mimicking nuclear testing,” recalled Arnaud Bertrand, head of R&D at Atos’ product division. Last November, Atos delivered a new monster at CEA, the world’s fourteenth most powerful machine.

Since its inception in nuclear simulation, the group has unveiled four generations of machines, costing millions of euros. “Our work can be compared to that of a Formula 1 constructor,” explained Arnaud Bertrand. “Each of these machines is a semi-prototype, designed in collaboration with the customer.” The latest, the BullSequana XH3000, will cross the famous exascale border (“exascale”) and enter service in 2023.

In Angers, what strikes the audience is the silence that reigns in the workshop. Cloud servers have nothing to do with cooling by deaf fans “It wasn’t always the same,” said production manager Abdullah Laboudi. One of Atos’ pride is its “hot water” machine cooling system, a patented exclusivity. Performing in a closed circuit, this water oscillates between 30 to 40 degrees and drastically reduces energy consumption. A factor that consumers pay close attention to, not just their electricity bills. “If you devote 20% of your energy to anything other than counting, you will lose efficiency,” insisted Arnold Bertrand.

The Angers plant, which makes servers for cloud and cybersecurity products, will be completely redesigned in 2025 at double the size. Investment of 60 million euros. “And he will “Hydrogen Ready” refers to Vincent Sarakani, who is working for the goal of carbon neutrality for this energy. But it is better to have the ability to integrate HPC. Also make a microprocessor, which represents about 50% of the cost of the machine, but it would be much better. Date Europe relies entirely on American semiconductors, including Intel (91% of the market) and AMD (6%), as well as Graphics Accelerator (Nvidia). , The purpose is to restore control, including the second program, EPI (European). Processor Initiative), which connects 32 industrialists and research centers.

In Maisons-Laffitte, very close to Atos headquarters, a highly promising start-up is part of this trajectory, SiPearl. Created in 2019, it combines the cream of European electronics under the direction of its founder Philip Notton, a former Atos and STMicroelectronics employee. “We want to build Airbus on the chip, Boss explains. To do that, we must combine funding and efficiency on a European scale.” Customers are already there. The challenge is to achieve production by the end of 2023. SiPearl plans to hire about 1,000 people in three years. Its very low-power microprocessors will significantly equip the latest generation of Atos supercomputers.

In the long run, there are two mountains left to climb. First printing of chips in Europe: Ciparle, like everyone else, will be engraved on Taiwanese giant TSMC. “It will take a decade to build a foundry with a 5-nanometer process,” explained Arnaud Bertrand. The second challenge is to switch to the quantum world. “We hope to build the first European quantum computer here,” Vincent Sarakani announced, stopping in front of a machine at his workshop in Angers, a “quantum simulator”. A kind of translator that allows developers to test their algorithms as if they were already in this new world. “American labs bought it from us,” our host slipped.

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