Supercomputers - what are they for and are they really bigger, maybe more?

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Old photos show what the first computers looked like. Huge metal wardrobes occupying entire rooms are memorable, especially when we realize that their power was thousands of times smaller than that currently used by smartphones. The average home computer or tablet user may think that there are no such giant machines in the world anymore, because their time is long gone. And that's not true - in university laboratories, corporate laboratories and government institutions there are supercomputers, powerful machines that perform extremely complex calculations.

Supercomputers - ranking

Continuously since 1993, the top 500 ranking has been carried out - a global classification of the power of the best supercomputers, refreshed every six months. In November last year (in June this year the current ranking will be published), the Chinese Tiahne-2 (Milky Way) took first place, which outstripped the competition, achieving a dizzying performance of 33.87 petaflops. Put simply, this silicon monster can run nearly 34 quadrillion floating point operations per second! For comparison: the top Intel Core i7 processors, used in many personal computers, reach speeds of about a dozen or several dozen gigaflops, or billions of operations per second. However, the superpower comes at a price, the Tianhe-2 devours 24MW of electricity - as much as a small city.

FLOPS, flops - number of floating point operations per second.

1 megaflop (MFLOPS) = 106 = million

1 gigaflop (GFLOPS) = 109 = billion

1 teraflop (TFLOPS) = 1012 = trillion

1 petaflop (PFLOPS) = 1015 = quadrillion

What are supercomputers for?

Is building supercomputers, so expensive to operate, really profitable? Definitely yes. The use of their power for higher mathematics has significantly developed scientific research, including in the field of physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology and meteorology. Supercomputers are used to carry out complex simulations, thanks to which we can predict the weather and upcoming earthquakes with high probability. Nuclear bomb trials were replaced with complex calculations. Theoretical physicists received tools that allow them to test their hypotheses in practice. Supercomputers also form the basis of neural networks, the digital equivalents of the human brain.

Why are supercomputers so big?

Miniaturization has its limitations. As long as graphene, an ultramodern material produced in Poland, does not replace silicon in the mass production of processors, supercomputers will continue to occupy huge surfaces and consume large amounts of electricity. So far, it is impossible to achieve high performance without creating structures composed of tens of thousands of computing units and looking for better and better technologies for combining their power.

Prometheus and Zeus - Polish supercomputers

In Poland, we also have a supercomputer, which is listed on the top 500 list. Zeus, the pride of the Cyfronet Academic Computer Center at AGH, took 175th place in the June ranking with a score of 266.9 teraflops (TFLOPS). And this is not the last word from the university in Krakow - recently there have been reports in the media about Prometheus, a supercomputer four times more powerful than Zeus, built for PLN 41 million. The machine, consisting of almost 42,000 computing cores, is to achieve a performance of 1.66 petaflop, which would place it on a high 30th position in this year's ranking. Prometheus, like his older brother Zeus, will perform complex scientific calculations in many fields.