10,000,000,000,000,000 calculations per second

Pay a visit to the fastest computer on earth

In today’s ever-more digitalized world, we all have a tale or two to share about how personal computers have let us down: like how they refused to let us run different programs at the same time or how the data was so heavy that the damned device kept us on hold forever before conducting even the most trivial operation.
Well, there is one machine in the world — and it’s in Japan — that is absolutely free of such concerns, being the fastest computer on Earth and capable of handling a mind-boggling number of tasks in far less than the blink of an eye.
In June and November last year, the K computer — developed by the IT giant Fujitsu and housed at the RIKEN Advanced Institute for Computational Science (AICS) in Kobe — was ranked No. 1 in the TOP500 list of the world’s fastest computers. The ranking is announced twice a year at the SC conference of supercomputing experts — also known as the International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage, and Analysis.
The K computer — which will be available for shared use by researchers in November — is named after the Japanese numerical unit 京 (kei), meaning 10 quadrillion, or 10,000 trillion. By achieving the targeted 10 petaflops, a measure of computer performance equaling 10 quadrillion calculations — or floating-point operations, to be precise — per second, K lived up to its name in November.
If humans were to perform the same number of calculations as K does in a second, it would take the world’s entire population of 7 billion people — each tackling one problem per second — 17 consecutive days.
In that latest November ranking, the K computer was proved to be four times faster than the runner-up, a Chinese machine named Tianhe-1A. Developed by the National Supercomputing Center in Tianjin, Tianhe-1A achieved 2.566 petaflops, followed by the American supercomputer Jaguar, installed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and run by the U.S. Department of Energy, which ranked 3rd, marking 1.759 petaflops.
So what’s the secret to this overwhelming speed?
During a recent visit by this reporter, the supercomputer — the hardware of which has been completed but which still has system software under development — looked like rows and rows of tall refrigerators neatly lined up in a huge warehouse. It is made up of 864 fridge-like units called “racks.” Each rack — 80 cm wide, 75 cm deep and 206 cm tall — contains 24 system boards tacked on top of each other and connected by cables. Each system board carries four CPUs (central processing units), which make up the “brain” of computers. While normal PCs are mounted with just one CPU, K has a total of 82,944 custom-made CPUs.
The K-computer project, which started in 2006, is the first one backed by the Japanese government since the Earth Simulator project, which won the top spot in the Top 500 list back in 2002, achieving 35.86 teraflops in the same benchmarking program. (1,000 teraflops equals one petaflop.) But while the Earth Simulator, developed by NEC Corp. and installed at the Yokohama center of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, was designed specifically for the purpose of simulating climate change models, the K-computer is built to be universal — to accommodate all kinds of simulation needs.
Thus it is hoped to accelerate the R&D and design of a wide range of products and services — from jet engines to silicon semiconductors, to new drugs and to tsunami warning systems.
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