Supercomputers: What are they for? What is the Top500?

Supercomputers are not well known to the general public, but they influence our lives more than you might think.

These are supercomputers, these huge gadgets, which occupy large, quiet and disturbing rooms. These things are from another planet.

The world’s leading supercomputers cost millions of dollars and can consume the same amount of energy as an entire village.

Most people have only seen one supercomputer in films, usually in science fiction. They seem to be part of a world of their own, which only very few people have access to, and in many cases they are surrounded by a certain mystery. They are considered a matter of state for governments around the world. But what do we use them for?

What is the use of a supercomputer?

These are unknown to the average citizen, and many people might wonder about the use of a supercomputer.

The truth is that supercomputers are unique machines, very different from the machines we are used to using in our daily lives. Its processing speed is twice as fast as that of personal computers, and it is made up of thousands of powerful computers that work together to serve hundreds of highly specialized users.

Its most common uses are in scientific research. Its enormous computing capabilities are very useful for solving complex problems and performing simulations that human beings would take years to emulate or would never be able to reproduce directly.

For example, a supercomputer can be used to make calculations about aircraft aerodynamics; or to model protein folding (far-reaching research that could help in the fight against diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cystic fibrosis or various types of cancer); or to develop all kinds of drugs. It can also simulate the evolution of a star, which is of great interest for cosmological research, or nuclear explosions, which, while not a very desirable goal, actually contributes to reducing the number of nuclear tests on the ground.

In addition to this. Supercomputers play an important role in climate prediction, becoming highly relevant in such important events as the prevention and management of natural disasters.

What is the Top 500?

Top500 is the name of a project that is responsible for developing a ranking of the 500 most powerful supercomputers in the world.

The project started in 1993 in the area around the University of Mannheim, and updates data every 6 months.

One of the most interesting parts of the Top500 is that it is very useful to check whether or not the technology meets the expectations of Moore’s Law.

The truth is that, according to the data we know, this has been the situation to date. According to Wikipedia, the evolution since 1993 allows us to determine that the performance of supercomputers has doubled every 14 months or so, which means that the Gordon Moore prediction made public in 1965 has been met at a very good pace.

Top500 includes both maximum and cumulative average data. Thus, we can understand the evolution of both the computing power of the main machines on the planet, and the sum of the 500 main ones, as well as the average of all of them.

Today (Information from November 2017), the honour of being at the top of the list of the fastest supercomputers in the world is held by Sunway TaihuLight, a system developed in China, which reaches a maximum performance of 93.01 Petaflops, which is a speed around one million times faster than the most powerful machine developed in 1993.

Why is the evolution of supercomputing so interesting?

Given the predictions of Moore’s Law and the unstoppable evolution of technology, supercomputing is bound to achieve achievements that our ancestors could hardly have dreamed of.

For example, the Tiahne-3 supercomputer is already under construction, in China, and it is expected to be capable of achieving the milestone of reaching the level of 1 exaflop, which is considered to be the processing speed of a human brain (indeed, the human brain has an enormous capacity for calculation, although it is not capable of focusing it on a single use, but instead it is used for all kinds of tasks, such as movement coordination or the management of body functions). Tianhe-3 is expected to be up and running in 2020.

One of the reasons why it’s so interesting to learn about the evolution of supercomputing is that it largely represents the evolution of IT, at least in terms of hardware. Thus, although we may not have a Tiahne-3 in our room, it helps us check the pace of development of computers and their constant improvement, including the devices we use in our daily lives. And it’s always interesting to know what the most powerful computers on the planet are capable of doing.

The evolution of supercomputers makes us confident to have more and more intelligent devices to help us solve the many problems that affect Humanity. Although there are always those who suspect that a supercomputer could lead us to the end of the human species, right?

In this blog we hope that this will not be the fate of the future and that, instead, supercomputers will contribute to making life a little more enjoyable on this blue planet that we love so much. Something that even Pandora FMS also tries to do.

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