Supercomputer: France’s Atos play in the major leagues

On a pure white floor, a battery of large black cupboards whispers a strange language. Each contains a series of computers connected to each other by a tangle of wires, all marked with a sign. In the ceiling, electric cables supply this peculiar fleet, while groundwater valves are responsible for cooling the machines. “This is where we do the final tests before delivering to customers,” explains Vincent Saracanne, Atos site manager in Angers. During our visit, a supercomputer intended for Italian universities was tested. And not just any of them: it is one of five supercomputers that Atos must offer as part of the European Intensive Computing Program EuroHPC (European High Performance Computing).

Since the public is not aware of this, the French group is the European leader in supercomputing and appears in the top five in this strategic activity. However, these machines play a major role in basic research, whether in health, energy, or meteorology (including global warming). It is also critical to defense policy and, more broadly, to artificial intelligence. After a slight air pocket in 2020, global demand is growing strongly and is supposed to represent $9 billion in 2023, and possibly $18 billion in 2025.

In the face of heavyweights, US HPE (Hewlett Packard Enterprise), Japan’s Fujitsu or China’s Lenovo, Atos hopes to double its market share by then to 16%. For this, one can count on the support of France and Europe, which collected 1.8 and 8 billion euros, respectively, to enter the circle of “exascale” powers, that is, those with calculators capable of performing more than a billion operations per second. The power of 2 million desktop computers.

“We embarked on supercomputing fifteen years ago, at the request of the CEA (Commission for Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies), with the aim of numerically simulating nuclear tests,” recalls Arnaud Bertrand, Head of Research and Development in the Product Division at Atos. Last November, Atos delivered a new monster to CEA, the world’s 14th most powerful machine.

Since these beginnings in nuclear simulation, the group has released four generations of machines, costing several tens of millions of euros. Arnaud Bertrand explains: “Our job can be compared to that of a Formula 1 manufacturer. Each of these machines is a semi-prototype, designed in collaboration with the customer.” The latest, BullSequana XH3000, should cross the famous exascale (“exascale”) boundary and enter service in 2023.

In Angers, what amazes the visitor is the silence that prevails in the workshops. It has nothing to do with cloud servers that are cooled by deafening fans. “Things weren’t always the same,” says production manager Abdullah Al-Labudi. One of the things Atos is very proud of is the machine’s “hot water” cooling system, an exclusive patented system. This water oscillates in a closed circuit between 30 and 40 degrees and significantly reduces energy consumption. A factor that customers listen to carefully, not just for their electricity bill. Arnaud Bertrand asserts: “If you devote 20% of your energy to doing something other than arithmetic, you lose efficiency.”

The Angers plant, which also manufactures servers for cloud and electronic security products, will be completely redesigned to double in size in 2025. An investment of 60 million euros. “It will be “Ready for hydrogen,” defines Vincent Saracani, who aims to neutralize carbon thanks to this energy. But having the ability to assemble HPCs is a good thing. And manufacturing microprocessors, which account for nearly 50% of the value of machines, would be better, but the history of Europe is entirely dependent on American semiconductors with Intel (91% of the market) and AMD (6%), as well as graphics accelerators (Nvidia). ). The goal is to take back control, with a second programme, EPI (European Processor Initiative), in which 32 industrialists and research centers are involved.

In Maisons-Laffitte, near the headquarters of Atos, there is a very promising startup that is part of this path, SiPearl. Created in 2019, it brings together the cream of European electronics, under the direction of its founder Philip Notten, a former employee of Atos and STMicroelectronics. “We want to create Airbus for the chip, the president explains. To do that, we must mobilize funding and skills on a European scale.” The customers are already there. The challenge is to achieve production at the end of 2023. SiPearl plans to employ approximately 1,000 people within three years. Its low-power microprocessors will particularly equip the latest generation of Atos supercomputers.

In the long run, two mountains still have to be climbed. First, printing the chips in Europe: SiPearl, like everyone else, will engrave them at the Taiwanese giant TSMC. “It would take a decade to build the foundries with 5nm processes,” explains Arnaud Bertrand. The second challenge, the transition to the quantum realm. “We hope to produce the first European quantum computer here,” declared Vincent Saracani, as he paused in front of a machine in his workshop in Angers, a “quantum simulator.” A kind of compiler that allows developers to test their algorithms as if they were already in this new world. “American labs bought it from us,” our host misses.

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