The International Race to Build the World’s Fastest Supercomputer

By Phill Powell

The competition is fierce – the stakes are huge. So who will build the world’s fastest supercomputer?

Titan_computer
America’s Titan supercomputer lives up to its name, with a machine that executes 17.59 petaflops of processing per second.

Currently, it’s not much of a contest…but that could change, especially if the United States responds to a recent challenge from the Obama Administration.

Quick on the Draw
Presently, the world’s fastest supercomputer is China’s Tianhe-2 supercomputer, which is housed in China’s National Supercomputer Center in Guangzhou.

The Tianhe-2 is some kind of marvel, built and programmed by more than 1,300 computer scientists and engineers, and able to execute 33.86 petaflops per second. (A petaflop is a unit of computing speed equal to one thousand million floating-point operations per second.)

The Tianhe-2’s impressive numbers are essentially twice as fast as America’s leading supercomputer, the Titan (which is housed in Oak Ridge National Lab, in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where much of America’s nuclear-weapon-development program has been based for numerous decades).

Despite its “runner-up” ranking, the Titan is still lightning-quick – able to carry out 17.59 petaflops per second. (However, in 2018, the Titan will be replaced by a new supercomputer, called “Summit,” which is being built by IBM.)

Tianhe_supercomputer
China’s Tianhe-2 supercomputer is currently the world’s fastest supercomputer.

A National Initiative
The Obama Administration has challenged the nation to do whatever’s necessary to create an exascale computer by the year 2025, and not just any exascale computer, but one that’s not less than 30 times stronger than China’s Tianhe-2 supercomputer.

So how much processing power are we talking about?

Well, an exascale computer that strong would be capable of executing one quintillion operations per second. How much is a quintillion? Try 1,000,000,000,000,000,000. Put another way, it’s one billion billion operations each second.

Power Play
The desire by both China and the United States to have the fastest supercomputer on the globe is not simply a question of national pride, although that’s definitely part of whatever “supercomputer arms race” exists between the U.S. and China.

But considering that computer power can and does now influence military power, there’s a lot more on the table here than international bragging rights.

For example, a nation with the fastest supercomputer might be better able to protect its most sensitive data from cyber-terrorists.

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