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Study Opportunities' Blog

Teraflops, Petaflops and Supercomputers

This week Supercomputers made the news in two separate articles. We mention them in passing when talking about 'types of computers' in class, specifically at the beginning of Grade 10 and then pretty much forget about them. Our teaching is so focussed on the shallow end of the computing pool that we sometimes forget how astonishingly deep the pool can get - and how powerful computers truly can be. A good thing to remember is that today's supercomputer is tomorrows smartphone, watch or some other minuscule digital device that no one has even imagined yet. So, let's take a closer look at supercomputers....

First: The supercomputing news

What is a Supercomputer?

The Oxford English Dictionary only offers us this: A particularly powerful mainframe computer.

WhatIs.com offers a far more satisfying A supercomputer is a computer that performs at or near the currently highest operational rate for computers.

Yeah, but what is a Supercomputer really?

This video about sums it up perfectly:

Top Supercomputers - by end of 2016

Great to see visuals of the actual machines.

What is a FLOP?

FLoating point Operation.

A single calculation involving floating point numbers (i.e. real numbers with decimal points). Supercomputers work at speeds that allow them to perform in the Teraflop or Petaflop range. A TERAFLOP is 1 TRILLION floating point operations per second. A PETAFLOP is 1000 Teraflops = 1000 Trillion = 1 Quadrillion floating point calculations per second. By next year we should have a Supercomputer capable of 200 Petaflops!

To put it in perspective, desktop computers are only reaching Teraflop capability this year whilst the world got its first Teraflop Supercomputer in 1997 and its first Petaflop supercomputer way back in 2008 (the IBM "Roadrunner" - see it on YouTube).

The Top 500 Supercomputer list (also a great source for seeing what these behemoth machines are being used for) is updated twice yearly and lists (obviously) the 500 most powerful computers in the world. The competition for the most powerful machine is largely between the USA and China, with China dominating since 2012.

Multi Processing / Parallel Processing

We teach these concepts relating them to the desktop computers and devices that our learners are familiar with and use every day. They really start to make sense when you talk about them in terms of these machine which are made up of hundreds of thousands of CPUs and GPUs. Maybe worth a reference back to supercomputers at that point?

The Mythbusters guys explain parallel processing in GPUs in this fun video courtesy of Nvidia:

And that about concludes our quick primer on Supercomputers. Now on to our news links for the week.

News in brief:

That's it for this week.

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