Computers nowadays are fast. Back in the old days of 286/486 you were the envy of all the tech nerds in your street if you could claim ownership of a 50MHz computer. “I’ve only got a 33MHz 286!” you could hear them wail. You only had one processor of course, so it was purely a matter of who had the faster processor speed. A Megahertz duel at dawn, mano a mano, number vs number, the winner easily distinguishable. These days multi-core processors are the thing, and pure clock speed won’t cut it as a measuring stick anymore. There are so many other factors like how many cores, cache speed, actual computation speed, the list goes on.
So the tech nerds today compare their Intel Core i7 to their friends’ AMD, but on a global scale the battle is fought to decide who has the fastest supercomputer. A supercomputer is fairly self-explanatory, and is basically a super-fast computer. The scale of numbers you are dealing with changes dramatically, and you start dealing with petaflops as a measure of computing speed. FLOPS refers to floating-point operations per second, and your average computer might be capable of gigaflops (billions of FLOPS). When you start dealing with supercomputers, petaflops become a necessary jump in terminology and measure quadrillions of FLOPS (or 1000 x 1000 x billion).
The 45th bi-annual TOP500 list of the fastest supercomputers in the world has produced a clear (and expected) winner: the Tianhe-2 in China. Residing in the National Supercomputer Center in Guangzhou, since its completion in 2013 the Tianhe-2 has topped the list every time. With a HPL Linpack benchmark score of 33.86 petaflops, the Tianhe-2 is comfortably superior to its nearest competitor the Titan at the Department of Energy in the US, which could only manage 17.59 petaflops. A paltry figure in this high-stakes game of who has the fastest supercomputer, in which the main players are, you guessed it, the US and China. Similar to the space race in the 80’s there’s a mix of national pride, prestige and rivalry behind this latest technologically driven race. Although China is clearly the top dog at the moment, the US still boasts the most supercomputers in the list at 233. Europe is also a big player on the scene with 141 supercomputers featuring the top 500.
Never one to be outdone, the US plans to strike back with a Department of Energy system planned to be released in 2017 or 2018. The $425 million investment is planned to yield a whopping 150 petaflops, which will place the US squarely in the lead. There is also the possibility of the development of a quantum computer in the near future, one which IBM has gone on record as impossible for current TOP500 supercomputers to even get near to outperforming.