On an immaculate 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 cords, all marked with a label. On the ceiling, electric cables supply this strange armada, while on the ground water valves are responsible for cooling the machines. “This is where we carry out the final tests before delivery to customers,” explains Vincent Sarracanie, director of the Atos site in Angers. During our visit, it was a supercomputer intended for Italian universities that was put to the test. And not just any: it is one of the five supercomputers that Atos must deliver as part of the European intensive computing program EuroHPC (European High Performance Computing).
Because, the public is unaware of it, the French group is the European leader of the supercomputing and appears in the top 5 world of this strategic activity. However, these machines play a central role in basic research, whether in health, energy or meteorology (including global warming). They are also decisive in defense policy and more broadly in artificial intelligence. After a slight air pocket in 2020, global demand is growing strongly and should represent 9 billion dollars in 2023, and potentially 18 billion in 2025.
Faced with the heavyweights, the American HPE (Hewlett Packard Enterprise), the Japanese Fujitsu or the Chinese Lenovo, Atos hopes to double its market share by then to reach 16%. For this, it can count on the support of France and Europe, which have mobilized 1.8 and 8 billion euros respectively to enter the circle of “exascale” powers, that is to say those with calculators capable of performing more than 1 billion billion operations per second. The power of 2 million desktop PCs.
“We embarked on supercomputing fifteen years ago, at the request of the CEA (Commissariat for Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies), with a view to numerically simulating nuclear tests”, recalls Arnaud Bertrand, the head of R&D in the product division of Atos. Last November, Atos delivered a new monster to the CEA, the fourteenth most powerful machine in the world.
Since these beginnings in nuclear simulation, the group has released four generations of machines, machines costing several tens of millions of euros. “Our job can be compared to that of a Formula 1 constructor, explains Arnaud Bertrand. Each of these machines is a quasi-prototype, designed in collaboration with the customer.” The latest, the BullSequana XH3000, should cross the famous exascale boundary (the “exascale”) and enter service in 2023.
In Angers, what strikes the visitor is the silence that reigns in the workshops. Nothing to do with cloud servers cooled by deafening fans. “It hasn’t always been the same,” says production manager Abdallah Laboudi. One of Atos’ prides is its “hot water” machine cooling system, a patented exclusivity. Circulating in a closed circuit, this water oscillates between 30 and 40 degrees and drastically reduces energy consumption. A factor that customers listen to very carefully, not just for their electricity bill. “If you devote 20% of your energy to doing something other than calculation, you lose efficiency,” emphasizes Arnaud Bertrand.
The Angers plant, which also manufactures servers for the cloud and cybersecurity products, will be completely redesigned to double in size in 2025. An investment of 60 million euros. “And she will be“hydrogen ready”, specifies Vincent Sarracanie, who is aiming for carbon neutrality thanks to this energy. But having the capacity to assemble HPCs is good. Also manufacturing microprocessors, which represent nearly 50% of the value of machines would be better, but to date Europe is totally dependent on American semiconductors with Intel (91% of the market) and AMD (6%), as well as graphics accelerators (Nvidia). , the objective is to regain control, with a second programme, the EPI (European Processor Initiative), which associates 32 industrialists and research centres.
In Maisons-Laffitte, very close to the headquarters of Atos, a very promising start-up is part of this trajectory, SiPearl. Created in 2019, it brings together the cream of European electronics, under the direction of its founder Philippe Notton, a former Atos and STMicroelectronics employee. “We want to create the Airbus of the chip, explains the boss. To do this, 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 hire nearly 1,000 people within three years. Its very low-power microprocessors will notably equip the latest generation of Atos supercomputers.
In the longer term, two mountains remain to be climbed. First the printing of the chips in Europe: SiPearl, like everyone else, will have them engraved at the Taiwanese giant TSMC. “Building foundries with 5-nanometer processes will take a decade,” explains Arnaud Bertrand. Second challenge, switch to the quantum world. “We hope to produce the first European quantum computer here”, announces Vincent Sarracanie, stopping in front of a machine in his workshops 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”, slips our host.