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article imageOn the brink of the next era in supercomputing

By David Brydon     Apr 3, 2012 in Technology
Belfast - Imagine a single supercomputer able to out-perform 50 million laptops, and capable of performing a staggering one quintillion (billion billion) operations per second. Expect that supercomputer to be operating this decade, experts say.
Supercomputers are progressing faster than ever now, with scientists and engineers eager for even greater leaps in their capabilities to process enormous amounts of information.
Now the race is on for the next decade to build supercomputers capable of performing one quintillion operations per second.
"It is the next frontier for high-performance computing.", says professor Dimitrios Nikolopoulos of the School of Electronics at the Queen's University of Belfast.
A supercomputer's performance is measured in FLOPS (floating-point operations per second). What is widely recognised as the first supercomputer is the CDC 6600 from 1964, which was used for research in high energy nuclear physics. It could perform at 3 megaFLOPS (3 million FLOPS). The first supercomputer to break the petaFLOP barrier (a quadrillion FLOPS, or 1 with 15 zeros after it) was IBM's Roadrunner, built in 2008.
The current record for the fastest supercomputer, however, belongs to Fujitsu's K computer, built for RIKEN in Japan. It's made up of a stunning 88,128 computer processors jammed into 864 refrigerator-sized cabinets in the area the size of a football field. The K computer manages a speed of 10.51petaFLOPS, 10 times faster than the fastest supercomputer in 2008. An exoFLOP, the next goal, is even faster at one quintillion (1 with 18 zeros after it) FLOPS.
Of course, these supercomputers demand more electricity to run the larger they become. More memory and more CPU power lends itself to what will likely be one of the biggest hurdles to overcome for tomorrow's supercomputers.
"The current projections suggest that power consumption of exascale computers will be 100 megawatts. It's impossible to build a suitable facility and have enough power.", says Nikolopoulos.
It's a hurdle well worth overcoming, however. Supercomputers contribute much in the way of scientific analysis and research and pave the way for the future of understanding the complexities of the world around us.
"More and more people are interested in understanding the behaviors of societies as a whole. These require simulations -- how people interact, communicate, how they move. That will require exascale computing.", says Nikopoulos.
With supercomputers contributing extensively to fields such as aerospace engineering, astrophysics, climate modeling and other venues, all signs point to that next big supercomputer breakthrough being now just around the corner.
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