Any limits to supercomputer processing speed?
July 18, 2016
by Mark Ollig

Three years ago, I wrote about a supercomputer which could process data at “an amazing 33.86 quadrillion calculations per second.”

Yes, this is a challenging number to wrap our heads around.

The supercomputer was made in China, and is called the TH-2 (Tianhe-2) High Performance Computer System.

The TH-2 can perform 33.86 TFlop/s or Trillion-Floating-point operations (calculations) per second as measured in “Teraflops” computing speed.

TOP500 benchmarks and ranks the top 500 most powerful, commercially available computer systems by the speed in which they solve a set of linear equations, using floating-point arithmetic.

Supercomputers use their incredible processing power to explore subjects such as: quantum mechanics, astrophysics, our planet’s weather, energy shortages, pollution, and global climate changes.

Science, research, and engineering requiring complex calculations are modeled using supercomputer’s processing abilities – which are far faster than on today’s best personal computing devices – or yours truly’s 4-year-old Apple MacBook.

Supercomputing technology is used to assist in new medical drug discoveries, precision medicine research, and simulations and optimization for high-speed trains, aircraft, automobiles, and I imagine, military simulation scenarios.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) national labs has supercomputers available for universities, other academia, and private sector companies.

This year, the fastest supercomputer in the world performed a mind-boggling 93 quadrillion calculations per second.

Let’s try wrapping our heads around 93,000,000,000,000,000 (93 quadrillion) calculations per second, or 93 petaflops (93 million billion) floating-point operations per second.

One petaflops is equal to 1,000 teraflops, or 1,000,000,000,000,000 (quadrillion), or, a thousand trillion floating-point operations per second.

Once again, China is the maker of the number one ranking supercomputer, per the TOP500.

Sunway TaihuLight is the name given by China for this newest supercomputer.

This supercomputer, equipped with 10,649,600 computing processing cores, was developed by China’s National Research Center of Parallel Computer Engineering and Technology.

The Sunway TaihuLight is twice as fast as its predecessor, the Tianhe-2, and uses Chinese-made ShenWei computer processing chips.

The processor chips used with the Tianhe-2 were made by Intel.

The Sunway TaihuLight has a peak processing performance level stated as being 125 petaflops.

So, where does the United States stand in the supercomputer rankings?

The Titan – Cray XK7, with 560,640 computing cores, 710 terabytes (710,000 gigabytes) of memory, and a peak processing speed exceeding 27,000 trillion calculations per second (27 petaflop/s), is made by Cray Inc. in the US, and ranks third in the TOP500.

“When complete, Titan will have a theoretical peak performance of more than 20 petaflops, or more than 20,000 trillion calculations per second,” it states on its website: https://www.olcf.ornl.gov/titan.

The number-two spot still belongs to the Tianhe-2 from China.

In fact, China has 167 supercomputers on the Top500 listings, with the US having 165.

The latest supercomputers operate in the quadrillion, or TFlop/s processing range.

The next “big thing” in supercomputing processing will be an “E-Scale supercomputer” which will process calculations per second on the exascale level of an “exaflop,” or a million trillion calculations per second.

A future supercomputer processing 1 Eflop/s (Exaflops) would possess processing power equal to 1,000 Pflop/s (one thousand petaflops).

The DOE has an Exascale Computing Initiative group currently working on exascale speeds achieving 1 Eflop/s processing speeds.

Exascale processing may be available by 2023 – the DOE originally planned for 2020.

During the recent 12th HPC Connections Workshop in Wuhan, China, Beihang University Professor Depei Qian, who is director of China’s high-performance computing project, talked about China’s own aggressive exascale program.

China plans on having an exascale Exaflop/s supercomputer working in 2020.

And so, my dear readers, in the not-too-distant future, the world will witness the first supercomputer to break the processing speed barrier of 1 quintillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000) calculations per second.

Now, that’s a number to wrap one’s head around.

Which country will break the exascale supercomputing processing barrier first?

Your continuously-processing columnist’s brain is monitoring supercomputing advancements, and will report future updates as warranted.

Is there a limit to supercomputer processing speed?

So far, we haven’t reached one.

My online social media messages are processed at a reasonable 140 cp/t (characters per tweet) via the @bitsandbytes user handle found on Twitter.

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