Tuesday 18 November 2014

Super-duper Computers!

Supercomputers!  We know it’s a combination of super + computer.  You get it, but what is it?  What does it do?  What’s so super about it?  Can it perform fantastic stuff just like Superman but of course not in the same vein? 

According to the 43rd edition (June 2014) of the twice-yearly TOP 500 list of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, the Tianhe-2 is the world's most powerful supercomputer - third time in a row!  Developed by China’s National University of Defense Technology, it has a performance of 33.86 petaflop/s and is used as a "research and educational" tool.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

But hey, what’s a petaflop?  It’s a measure of a computer's processing speed and is expressed as a thousand trillion operations per second. 
[Check out: http://www.petaflop.info/].

How fast is fast? Supercomputers have the ability to process massive and complex data, so it needs to be extremely fast.  Imagine a supercomputer with a top speed of 27 petaflops or 27,000 trillion calculations per second, this means it is hundreds of thousands times faster than our top-of-the-line PC.  It won't fit on a desktop as it occupies a space the size of a basketball court [Source: How Stuff Works]!

IBM Blue Gene P Supercomputer
Image credit: Argonne National Laboratory

So, what does it do?  

Predict the weather. 

Research on the climate and global warming. 
Molecular modeling - to compute the structures and properties of biological compounds. 
Simulations – e.g. the effect of wind and turbulence on an airplane; and the simulation of the effect of a nuclear weapon if it were to be detonated. 
In the US, the military uses supercomputers for: 
         - Testing new vehicles being engineered & to see how they will function in combat. 
       - To give soldiers a simulation of how it will be in the new vehicle & how they need to react in certain situations.
      - Used for military pilots who go into a simulator to see how to react during combat situation

There’s much more stuff it could do and they are used by different people for a variety of reasons. How much does one cost?  It may cost between USD100 million - USD250 million for design and assembly.  This does not include maintenance costs.  Electricity bills to run it may cost about USD9 million a year!  Functional-wise it lasts for about 2-3 years. Yes, not cost effective but the reason it is built is altruistic - to save the world!

Shared by Azni
Learning Specialist, Petrosains

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