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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Race for PFLOPS is the New Race for Space

2008's 2nd place supercomputer, Cray's Jaguar.  Image courtesy of Wired.

Supercomputers are ones that are used for extremely complex processing jobs such as problems in quantum physics, weather forecasting, climate research, molecular modeling, and physical simulations, to name some of the better uses.  They were introduced in the 1960s, and were initially designed by Seymour Cray.

1985 Cray-2 seen from the side at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris.
Image courtesy of Edal Anton Lefteroy/Wikipedia.

LINPACK is a software library for performing numerical linear algebra on digital computers, designed for use on supercomputers in the 1970s and early 1980s.  The LINPACK Benchmarks are a measure of a computer's floating point power, measuring how fast a computer can solve a dense system of linear equations.  The result is reported in millions of floating point operations per second (FLOPS). Supercomputers are currently measured in PFLOPS, or petaFLOPS.

IBM Roadrunner, the world's first PFLOPS computer.
Image courtesy of LeRoy Sanchez/Wikipedia.

The TOP500 Project ranks and details the 500 most powerful computer systems in the world (non-distributed computers, that is, or one that does not interact with other computers to solve a complex problem).  It began in 1993 and publishes an updated list twice a year, in June and November.  The June list coincides with the International Supercomputer Conference, and the November one with the ACM/IEEE Supercomputing Conference.  The Project's goal is to provide a realiable basis for finding and tracking trends in high-performance computing.  It bases its rankings on HPL, a software package regarded as a portable implementation of of the LINPACK Benchmark, which is written in Fortran.

The list is compiled by Hans Meuer of the University of Mannheim in Germany, Jack Dongarra of the University of Tennessee, and Erich Strohmaier and Horst Simon of NERSC/Lawrence Berkeley National Library.

TOP500 June 2011 Poster

This month the TOP500 Project committee announced that Fujitsu's K supercomputer was the fastest supercomputer in the world with a performance of 8.162 PFLOPS, or 8.162 quadrillion calculations per second with 93% efficiency. (A quadrillion is 1,000,000,000,000,000 or one thousand million million or  1015.)

The K supercomputer.  Image courtesy of The Telegraph, UK.

Named after the Japanese word "kei", which stands for 10 quadrillion, the supercomputer is produced by Fujitsu and located at RIKEN Advanced Institute for Computational Science campus in Kobe, Japan.  According to Jack Dongarra, the K's performance equals "one million linked desktop computers".  Its power usage is roughly that of 10,000 houses and its annual running costs are $10 million (U.S.).

A rack of RIKEN's next-generation supercomputer manufactured
by Fijitsu.  Image courtesy of CES1596/Wikipedia.

The previous winner, announced just last November, was China's Tianhe-1, which was capable of 2.566 PFLOPS.  Located at the National Supercomputing Center of Tianjin, China, it was developed by the Chinese National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) in Changsha, Hunan.

The Tianhe-1A CPU-GPU hybrid supercomputer.  Image courtesy of The Register, UK.

The rankings reflect how quickly computer power is advancing, hence the new ratings every six months.  Asian countries have made huge investments in supercomputing and lately dominate the field.  There is, however, a contender called Blue Waters being developed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign which may soon rival the K in speed, per Dongarra.

Radio Shack's Tandy TRS89 computer system.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

As someone commented, if you bought a Tandy TRS80 in 1981, the K computer is 2,050 trillion times faster.  This is great advancement but it all comes down to what it will be used for.  If it used for something trifling like stock predictions, or something heinous like weapons development it would be a shame.  But if it used in forecasting or in the field of medicine, things that will benefit the health and safety of mankind, then this is truly an amazing development.

Check out RIKEN to find out more about the K.
Geeks can learn more about programming on the K.

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