EU announces world’s first integration of photonic coprocessor into HPC

LightOn, a company specializing in photon processing, has announced the world’s first integration of its “Appliance” optical processing unit (OPU) into the French supercomputer Jean Zay. This is the first time that a photonic coprocessor (which transmits and processes information through light instead of electric current) has been integrated into a High Performance Computing (HPC) scenario – and into a Top500 machine (currently rated 105th) , nothing less.

Documents related to LightOn OPU

The Jean Zay supercomputer will be the first Top500 machine to integrate a photonic coprocessor. (Image credit: LightON)

LightOn’s photonics products were first deployed in a data center four years ago, integrating the technology into the already existing IT infrastructure. With data processing requirements booming due to recent advancements in machine learning and AI applications, computing is becoming increasingly heterogeneous – and increasingly specialized. This opens the door to ecosystems with multiple architectures and accelerators (CPU, GPU, TPU, OPU …), all working in tandem to deliver the best performance. The complexity of the system increases, but so does performance and efficiency. One area in which photon processing excels is COVID research – particularly in studies of molecular dynamics, an area of ​​computer science that performs particularly well on photon accelerators due to their incredibly low latency times.

Documents related to LightOn OPU

Specialized coprocessors can give general purpose accelerators good value for money. (Image credit: LightON)

LightOn’s appliance is an integrated computing unit that is integrated into a 2U form factor for quick and easy integration. Powered by LightOn’s Aurora 2 OPU, the appliance can achieve a maximum performance of 1.5 PetaOPS at 30W TDP. In some scenarios, this means that the Aurora 2 is capable of processing up to 1900 dense matrix-vector multiplications per second.

LightOn claims its Appliance coprocessor can deliver 8-40 times better performance than GPU acceleration alone. However, other photonic products such as Lightelligence’s PACE (still in the demonstration phase) have claimed performance improvements that are hundreds of times better than conventional semiconductor hardware. And because photonics does not use electric current for information processing, there is no ohmic heating – it means higher efficiency and more acceptable running costs.

This is only the first integration of photonics into an HPC scenario, but it sure won’t be the last. It seems AMD was right: the future is heterogeneous. It’s just that the future sometimes comes later than expected.

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