The Strategic Computing Complex is located in a classified area of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), so during a recent visit, PCMag met up with two of its supercomputing and quantum cryptography experts "outside the fence" at the LANL Research Library.
The complex, known as the Nicholas C. Metropolis Center for Modeling and Simulation, houses one of the largest supercomputing centers on the planet where calculation, modeling, simulation, and visualization of complex nuclear weapons data in support of the Stockpile Stewardship Program is carried out.
Among those allowed inside the fence are Randal Rheinheimer, deputy division leader for High Performance Computing at LANL, and Josip Loncaric, HPC Technology Futures Lead at LANL.
"I'm the big-picture guy and Josip Loncaric is the detail-orientated one," Rheinheimer explains.
Essentially, Loncaric's role is to predict what's next for supercomputing. The MIT and Harvard grad left a gig at NASA's Langley Research Center to join LANL in 2003 because "LANL is the premier institution for physical research." The move was a little cloak and dagger—"They wouldn't tell me what I'd be working on because it was a hush-hush project," he says—but the project turned out to be Roadrunner, the first supercomputer to use a heterogeneous model.
Simply put (if such a thing is possible), the model was far advanced from the usual Central Processing Unit (CPU) setup; using massively parallel computing and adding clusters of CPU and Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) for extremely accelerated performance. The approach paid off: Roadrunner was the first supercomputer to break the petaflop barrier, or one million billion calculations per second, before it was decommissioned in 2013.
Now, Loncaric is busy deploying the Trinity supercomputer, which is expected to be one of the fastest in the world. In 2014, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) awarded Seattle-based supercomputer maker Cray a $174 million contract to develop Trinity, which should be able to calculate full-scale, end-to-end weapons calculations—in 3D—to the highest accuracy possible.
"When Trinity is completed, it should exceed the performance of a million simple laptops," Rheinheimer explains.
Inside are "several advanced features, such as Intel's energy-efficient Xeon Phi processors with many integrated cores and very fast in-package memory, new storage tiers such as SSD-based Burst Buffers and disk-based Campaign Storage developed at LANL, and advanced power management features," Loncaric says. "Trinity design is driven by the memory footprint required to solve the most complex physics problems, with extreme performance to match."
Another use for LANL's computing expertise is in the field of quantum cryptography. Raymond Newell, Principal Investigator at the Quantum Institute, joined us in the LANL Research Library, with an intriguing package in tow.
Newell, who also joined LANL in 2003, described his job as "exploiting the weirdness of quantum mechanics to bring real benefit to pressing needs in national security."
Classical cryptography, as we now know, is not unbreakable. From the Enigma machine of WWII to the Secure Socket Layer (SSL) used today when you're shopping online, it seems as if conventional methods may have run their course. LANL is involved in this field not only because it's an interesting physics problem to solve, but because major corporations handling sensitive information, banks processing financial data, and governments passing classified secrets amongst its agencies, require utmost secrecy.
Enter the photon that looks like the way forward, using quantum cryptography to confound modern spies.
"No single photon can be cut in half," Newell explains. "They are indivisible. Furthermore, it's impossible to make a copy of a single photon. We have this thing called the quantum 'no cloning' theorem, which states that if someone is given an unknown quantum state, it is impossible for them to make a high-fidelity copy of it. A third tenant is what we call the 'uncertainty principle' [or] any attempt to extract information, to measure, make any measurement, will change it permanently, instantly and forever. So I think you might be able to see why single photons might be an excellent vehicle for transmitting secrets."
Newell's team at LANL developed techniques that allow this technology to work over fiber. It also secured patents for the QKarD, a handheld device that generates secret keys, using the quantum mechanics process described above.
Now they're onto something even more advanced: a random number generator, also using the principles of quantum physics, called an Entropy Engine (entropy in a computing context meaning randomness).
"Random number generation is a problem for all cryptographers," says Newell. "So what we have created is a device that generates unpredictable numbers at 200 megabits per second."
He pulls out what looked like a complex circuit board from a case (above).
"The unpredictability of those numbers is rooted in their origin in a quantum optical field generated on the device inside this," says Newell, turning the Entropy Engine over and back. "Where we have an optical source and a detector. The optical source fluctuates very rapidly due to a photon bunching effect. Those fluctuations are detected by the optical sensor and then digitized."
The intent is that this Entropy Engine can be placed inside a server, most probably within a cloud storage or virtualization environment. So when the server has a need to generate random numbers, a function call is made to the Entropy Engine, which then delivers them at extreme speeds.
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Now, unfortunately you probably don't have room to install a supercomputer like they have at LANL at your place, or the coolant facilities required to keep it stable. But if you're in the market for advanced cryptography, Newell's team have worked with an outside partner to bring the Entropy Engine to market.
It's now available via Whitewood Encryption Systems in Boston. As is the case in modern espionage, matters of national security, or even large scale government and/or financial institutions, it's a price-on-application sort of scenario.
In the meantime, the scientists at LANL are on to the next frontier in emerging technology. Stay tuned.