This powerful supercomputer can now run on light instead of electric current

Jean Zay Supercomputer
(Image credit: Cyril FRESILLON / IDRIS / CNRS)
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In addition to being one of the most powerful computers in the world and currently ranked 105 on the Top500 (opens in new tab) list, France's Jean Zay supercomputer (opens in new tab) is now the first HPC to have a photonic coprocessor.

Unlike traditional processors which use electric current, LightOn's photonic coprocessor transmits and processes information using light. The company's photonics coprocessor was added to the Jean Zay supercomputer under a pilot program with GENCI and IDRIS and represents not only a technological breakthrough but also a first for the industry.

So far, LightOn's technology has successfully been used by a community of researchers since 2018. 

Now though, its photonic coprocessor will be available to select users of the Jean Zay research community over the next few months who will use the device to conduct research on machine learning (opens in new tab) foundations, differential privacy, satellite imaging analysis and natural language processing (NLP (opens in new tab)) tasks.

LightOn photonic co-processor

LightOn's Optical Processing Unit (OPU) uses photonics to speed up randomized algorithms at a very large scale. However, it also works in tandem with standard silicon CPUs (opens in new tab) and Nvidia's A100 GPU (opens in new tab) technology.

The company's Aurora 2 OPU powers its Appliance integrated computing unit which is built into a 2U form factor so that it can be quickly and easily integrated in data centers or in this case, a supercomputer. According to LightOn, its Appliance can reach a peak performance of 1.5 PetaOPS at 30W TDP and can deliver performance that 8 to 40 times higher than GPU-only acceleration.

CEO and co-founder of LightOn, Igor Carror provided further insight into the pilot program that saw its Appliance integrated into the Jean Zay supercomputer in a press release (opens in new tab), saying:

“This pilot program integrating a new computing technology within one of the world’s Supercomputer would not have been possible without the particular commitment of visionary agencies such as GENCI and IDRIS/CNRS. Together with the emergence of Quantum Computing, this world premiere strengthens our view that the next step after exascale supercomputing will be about hybrid computing”

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Anthony Spadafora

After working with the TechRadar Pro team for the last several years, Anthony is now the security and networking editor at Tom’s Guide where he covers everything from data breaches and ransomware gangs to the best way to cover your whole home or business with Wi-Fi. When not writing, you can find him tinkering with PCs and game consoles, managing cables and upgrading his smart home.