China's Sunway TaihuLight was officially crowned the fastest computer in the world last week, continuing a run of dominance for China in this field. The Sunway cost $270 to research develop and build, but it gives the Chinese global bragging rights, and that's what counts.
But what do we actually use these kinds of supercomputers for? Julian Huguet crunches the numbers in this DNews report.
In terms of speediness, China's Sunway system clocks in at 125 petaflops, or 125 million billion flops, with flops being the accepted metric for this sort thing. Flops stands for FLoating-point Operations Per Second, and is essentially an indicator of how quickly the system can do multiple calculations with very big numbers.
Science has all sorts of uses for a machine that can crunch impossibly big numbers impossibly fast. Supercomputers are primarily used to model insanely complex systems, like global weather patterns, molecular interactions or even the first few moments after the Big Bang. As such, souped-up machines like the Sunway are constantly in demand by research teams around the world.
While some supercomputers are privately owned and operated, more often they're funded by governments who then determine what experiments are awarded access.
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As for practical impact, supercomputer calculations have been most useful in recent years for predicting the weather. Those 10-day forecasts you call up online would be impossible without supercomputers, which process information from thousands of weather stations. Even more impressively, supercomputers can model extremely long-range weather patterns and as such have provided the basis for what we now know about climate change. In effect, supercomputers can indeed predict the future, with rather astounding precision.
To get a sense of just how powerful these supercomputers are, in terms of hardware, consider that the typical high-end laptop in use today has four processing cores. China's Sunway system has 10,649,600 cores. That's 20 times more than the fastest U.S. supercomputer, Titan, located at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
For the patriotic American who finds this all a bit dispiriting, fear not. According to new reports, IBM will deliver a supercomputer called Summit to the U.S. Dept. of Energy in 2018. If all goes according to plan, Summit will top out at 200 teraflops. U.S.A. #1!
-- Glenn McDonald
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