A supercomputer is a very large and expensive machine with huge computational power. Supercomputers first made their appearance in the 1960s. The first supercomputers had only a few processors, by the 90s, they had thousands. These days, a single machine can house tens of thousands of high-performance processors. Though quantum computers have opened a new era in computing, they are far from matching the stability and reliability of present-day supercomputers. Thus we still rely on supercomputers to get the job done, at least those they can do.
These include weather forecasting, physical simulations, molecular dynamics, nuclear reactions and more.
How powerful is a supercomputer?
To get a grasp of the strength of today’s supercomputers, we need to get some figures. The performance of supercomputers is measured in Floating-point Operations Per Second (FLOPS). This is because most supercomputer jobs are calculations intensive. Thus it is better to measure their performance in FLOPS rather than in IPS (Instructions Per Second) as in other computers. A Floating-point Operation (FLOP) is any calculation involving one of the basic arithmetic operators and real numbers. That is an addition, subtraction, multiplication or division between two numbers with decimal places (real numbers),1.234 + 2.134, 1.234 – 2.134, 1.234 * 2.134 or 1.234 / 2.134 are each equal to 1 FLOP. Following this, we have
- KiloFLOPS = 1,000 FLOPS
- MegaFLOPS = 1,000 KFLOPS
- GigaFLOPS = 1,000 MFLOPS
- TeraFLOPS = 1,000 GFLOPS
- PetaFLOPS = 1,000 TFLOPS
- ExaFLOPS = 1,000 PFLOPS
- ZettaFLOPS = 1,000 EFLOPS
- YottaFLOPS = 1,000 ZFLOPS
To make sense of these, a typical high-end PC with an Intel Core i7-6700k processor attains 113.53 GFLOPS. But
- 1 PFLOPS= 1 000 TFLOPS
- 1 TFLOPS=1 000 GFLOPS
- 1 PFLOPS supercomputer > 8,800 high end PCs
Given that most supercomputers come in many (or even 10s of) PetaFLOPS, we do not need a mathematician to understand how powerful a supercomputer is. Effectively these machines pack an insane amount of computational power.
Can I own a supercomputer?
First, not every country in the world owns a supercomputer. Most, if not all supercomputers in active use are either owned by government agencies/ research facilities or state universities. China and the US together own most of the top 10 supercomputers in the world. But if you are bent on owning one, you have to deal with the following.
Supercomputers are nothing like the desktops in our homes, the name may not invoke it but these machines are a major feat of technology. All the major supercomputer builders like IBM, Cray, Fujitsu, Dell, and others all have a long history in computing technology and development. IBM is already pushing frontiers in quantum computing. Even at that, it took about 2yrs (2011-2013) for Cray to upgrade the Jaguar supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the U.S to the Titan which at the time was the best in the world. Needless to say, you will not find what you need in your garage to build a supercomputer.
Titan supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States
Now you must be thinking “if you can’t build it, why not buy one?”. For that, you’ll have to have a deep pocket. Supercomputers are expensive -very expensive- and things can get worse if you add operations, maintenance, and energy cost. A typical modern supercomputer can easily cost > US$100 million. For example, the Tianhe-2 (Milky Way 2) in China caused about US$390 million. If we follow the logic, a supercomputer should have a super electric bill right?. These machines are energy monsters, a single one of them can digest up to millions of dollars worth of energy a year. That for the Titan supercomputer in the U.S is about US$9 million a year. Lastly, you have to think about maintenance which again varies in millions of dollars a year. So, owning and operating a supercomputer will not be an easy job.
Size and Space
Supercomputers are very large machines that can occupy a considerable amount of surface area. The Titan supercomputer occupies a surface area of about 404 meters squared. So, if you are planning to buy a supercomputer you better have enough space to keep it.
Power and cooling
A supercomputer requires a great deal of power to stay on. The Titan, for example, requires about 8.2 Mw of power, so you’d better have a good source of energy available. Most of the electrical energy intake of a supercomputer is converted to heat. Here comes another headache (cooling). It will be stupid to come this far and then let the machine die of heat stroke. If you are going to buy one of these monster machines, then you should be ready to cool it down. This is not as easy as it sounds, cooling in an Acer Predator 21X is achieved with 5 system fans. It is a whole different story for a supercomputer, cooling is a complete process on its own. Though progress in cooling technology has made the process cheaper, it will still cost you some millions of dollars a year.
Say you manage to lay your hands on a supercomputer, you’ll have to be able to use it. Do not expect it to run your MS Office package or any other software you get around. Supercomputers run programs specifically designed to take advantage of their parallel nature and it can take time (a lot of time) to write the required code for your problem. For example, the Tianhe-2 was criticized for being difficult to use. “Some users would need years or even a decade to write the necessary code”, said Chi Xuebin, deputy director of the Computer Network and Information Centre.
Finally, do you need it?
It is difficult to think of a reason why a person would need a supercomputer for himself. Supercomputers are built for extreme computational operations. If you are a scientist, then you may need a supercomputer for research someday. But a single machine like the Titan is built to carry out computations in all fields of science. Given their cost, it will take more than a crazy person to buy one for himself and store in his giant garage.
Apart from all the above, you also have to think about noise, security, reliability, usage, and many other things. Plus supercomputers need a good number of experts and engineers to operate and maintain it. Verdict, stick to your desktop and if you need more power especially if you’re a gamer then check out the new Acer Predator 21X.