Now That's a Supercomputer

May 12 2008 / by juldrich
Category: Business & Work   Year: 2011   Rating: 11 Hot

By Jack Uldrich

Cross-posted from

ComputerWorld recently reported that NASA’s latest supercomputer will be capable of performing 10 quadrillion floating-point operations per second.

Now, 10 quadrillion is a rather large number. In fact, it is so large that it can be difficult to wrap one’s brain around. Let me try to put it in some perspective for you.

A few year’s ago I wrote an article about an IBM supercomputer capable of 70 trillion calculations per second. As a way of helping the reader grasp the enormity of the number, I noted that if that person had to perform a comparable number of calculations but only had a hand-held calculator it would take that person 60 million years to do what that supercomputer can now do in a single second. (And this is assuming the person could work around the clock 24/7/365.)

Today, supercomputers are performing 1 quadrillion calculations per seconds. So, if you follow the analogy, it would now take roughly 800 million years to perform a comparable number of calculations. And, if you extend the analogy out to 10 quadrillion calculations, it will soon take a person 8 billion years to do the same chore. (cont.)

All this might sound rather pedantic, but if you want to understand why the future is speeding up you should take this analogy to heart because what these supercomputers are really doing is augmenting human intelligence and accelerating change. For example, supercomputers are being used to develop new nanomaterials, new drugs and next-generation airplanes and spacecraft. More important, they are helping scientists and researchers gain a better understanding complex systems such as the human body; the natural environment; and the universe itself.

Why, these supercomputers are even being used to develop the next generation of supercomputers which will soon be capable of 100 quadrillion calculations! (Pessimists will argue that such a supercomputer would cost billions to build and would need a massive amount of energy to operate—and they would be right. However, according to this article, smart researchers at the Berkeley Lab are trying to change the supercomputing paradigm by using larger numbers of small processor cores which have the advantage of being both less expensive and less energy intensive.)

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