China’s new TaihuLight has been added to the TOP500 List, ranking as the world’s fastest supercomputer. It tops its Chinese predecessor, Tianhe-2, which ranked #1, until recently.
TaihuLight is the latest spark in a race that is animating its competitors to build bigger and faster supercomputers, and might continue to do so for a long time to come.
China’s, and the world’s, fastest computer displays what experts call an “impressive” performance. TaihuLight packs a punch of 125 petaflops (PFLOPS) and 10,649,600 cores, with a primary memory of 1.31 petabytes.
To put the magnitude of the latest supercomputer into perspective, one can imagine 1 petabyte (PB) to be the equivalent of about 1 million gigabytes.
TaihuLight is literally one million times faster than the average desktop computer.
However, a supercomputer is not really one single computer, but more like a massive array of interconnected computers that form a huge unified computing-entity.
And the race began
Just as people have been competing for as long as we can imagine, nations have also been competing among themselves. Depending on the era and the political, social, and military needs of that time, there was always some sort of race. In our day and age, it seems it’s the race to have the fastest supercomputer.
The fields that supercomputers shine in are very specific. They are mainly used in areas that require immense computing capabilities, including quantum mechanics, weather forecasting, climate research, oil and gas exploration, molecular modeling, and many other fields.
It was just over a decade ago that China did not have one single supercomputer. Today, China boasts having two — with one of them being the fastest gun in town.
The history of supercomputers began in the 1960s. Back then, and up until the 1990s, supercomputers ran on only a “few” processors. Between 1990 and 2016, the number of processors used in a supercomputer went from several thousand to several million.
What makes a supercomputer super?
The following tweet shows a model of TaihuLight.
Model of the TaihuLight super. Notice it's zeros and a 1. pic.twitter.com/otzQZCptvH
— Nicole Hemsoth (@NicoleHemsoth) June 22, 2016
While an everyday desktop computer has two or four cores (processor units) to process whatever you throw at it, a supercomputer can have several million cores.
The Top500 List is the acclaimed benchmark list for supercomputers. It shows the 500 most powerful, commercially available computer systems known to them. The number of petaflops (PFLOPS) a supercomputer is capable of processing is commonly used as a benchmark figure when comparing supercomputers.
A PFLOP is the amount of floating-point operations per second a computer can process. One PFLOP is equivalent to one quadrillion (a one with 15 zeros) floating-point operations per second.
Just to illustrate, the number 2.0 is considered a floating-point number. It has a decimal in it. In contrast to a floating-point number, we would consider the number 2 (without the decimal point), which is a binary integer.
A supercomputer can calculate in one second what would take a human about 1 million lifetimes.
So, to put it all together and get some juice out of what a PFLOP is, we can imagine that a supercomputer capable of 10 PFLOPS can do 10 quadrillion floating-point operations per second.
To completely wrap your head around the concept of speed these computers are capable of producing, one should consider that it would take a human about two weeks to count to 1 million.
According to mathisfun: “To count to 1 billion would take a whole working life.” Since 1 quadrillion is equivalent to 1 million x 1 billion, it would take about 1 million lifespans of counting to 1 billion to finally reach 1 quadrillion.
Top 3 supercomputer ranking
According to the top 10 positions of the 46th TOP500 in June 2016
#1, as of June 20, 2016, “LinhuLight” boasts 93.015 PFLOPS. The Chinese supercomputer is stationed at the National Supercomputing Center in Wuxi, China.
#2, also in China, is “Tianhe-2” with 33.863 PFLOPS.
#3 is “Titan” with 17.173 PFLOPS. Titan is stationed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States. The American supercomputer was built in 2012.
Other nationalities that can boast being represented on the top 10 of the TOP500 List are, among others, Japan, Switzerland, Germany, and Saudi Arabia.
The following tweet shows computer scientist, and co-author of “TOP500 List”, Jack Dongarra (second left).
— Qarnot computing (@Qarnot) June 22, 2016
Computer scientist Jack Dongarra, from the University of Tennessee, is impressed by the overall performance and the power that TaihuLight has under its hood.
“It’s running very high rates of execution speed, very good efficiency, and very good power efficiency.” Dongarra continued to say: “It’s really quite impressive,” according to Wired.
The most challenging part about a supercomputer is not its hardware, but rather the programming of the software needed to get all of the supercomputer’s components to work together.
Whether supercomputers can benefit the whole world and help its parts work together better is a question that remains to be answered.