A lot of peta can be a good thing

Ever hear of a petaflop? Until recently I had not, and would have guessed that it was either some kind of houseplant, an undergarment, or a failed gymnastics move. Instead, a petaflop represents one quadrillion floating-point calculations per second, a figure currently at the outer limits of supercomputer capabilities.
As Wired Science reports, a computer scheduled to go online in three years will boost this already staggering figure by a score or so. The 20 * 1015-calculations-per second computer represents the endpoint of a joint venture between nuclear physicists ad IBM, and wil be the property of the department of energy.

The specs of this machine are appropriately boggling, especially to a CS ingenue.

By almost any standard, the new computer will be staggering. It will have 1.6 million processing cores, 1.6 petabytes of memory, 96 racks, and 98,304 computing nodes. Yet, the new computer will have a much smaller footprint at 3,400 square feet than the current fastest computer’s 5,200 square feet. And it will be much more energy efficient than its predecessors, only drawing six megawatts of power a year. That’s about how much energy 500 American homes use in the same period.

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  1. #1 by Jim Fiore on February 3, 2009 - 2:04 pm

    I remember when I lusted for a home computer that could do one megaflop. Gigaflops? Teraflops? Petaflops? In your dreams baby. Such are the desires of those of us with large scientific/floating point computational demands and very little time. Do you have any idea how long it takes to compute a single precision phase vocoder on five minutes of CD quality audio using a 25 MHz 68030 with 68882 math coprocessor? Hours, damn it, HOURS!! That’s what I was doing over 15 years ago.

  2. #2 by Monado on February 3, 2009 - 2:39 pm

    Sounds like a floppy-eared bunny to me.
    Oh, petaFLOPS!
    I wonder what they’ll do with it?

  3. #3 by Kevin Beck on February 3, 2009 - 2:47 pm

    I like the fact that they are going to use an apparatus that eats up as much power as 500 typical households to create better climate models. They may have to factor in the heat produced by the friggin’ modeler itself.

  4. #4 by dreikin on February 3, 2009 - 4:49 pm

    Nah – just stick it (carefully!) in a tank of some easily-evaporated liquid and let it run a steam generator for the rest of the building ;-)
    Now I’ve got to remember what current household models are at..

  5. #5 by Jim Fiore on February 3, 2009 - 6:23 pm

    Oh yeah, as I recall, back in the 1980s NCAR (Natl Center for Atmospheric Research) in Boulder had two Cray XMPs and they generated something like 50% of the winter heating for the building.

  6. #6 by Bill from Dover on February 3, 2009 - 11:33 pm

    and would have guessed that it was either some kind of houseplant, an undergarment, or a failed gymnastics move.

    Or a veggie commercial that failed to make the super bowl.

  7. #7 by Bill from Dover on February 3, 2009 - 11:33 pm

    and would have guessed that it was either some kind of houseplant, an undergarment, or a failed gymnastics move.

    Or a veggie commercial that failed to make the super bowl.

  8. #8 by steve s on February 4, 2009 - 5:04 am

    And it will be much more energy efficient than its predecessors, only drawing six megawatts of power a year.
    Just to be a tedious physics type, from Wikipedia:
    Terms such as ‘watts per hour’, which are sometimes used in the media, are meaningless in practice (unless referring to change of power per hour).
    A watt is power. Energy per time. It’s a rate. Think of it like another rate, mph. You wouldn’t say “my car goes 79 mph per year”. 6 megawatts of power is how much it’s drawing at any given time.
    okay, I’ll stop being tedious now.

  9. #9 by Kevin Beck on February 4, 2009 - 5:14 am

    Steve,
    What’s funny about that bit of non-tedium (and I didn’t catch it) is that I just finished editing a lesson plan concerning household power (comparing different appliances, types of lights, etc.) in which I had to correct this same point in a few places–the writer had interchanged “consumption” (which has energy units, in this case kWh) and power, which is easy enough to do when the unit of energy explicitly has a Dubya tucked in there. (Actually, a Dubya may become the SI unit for wasted energy, but that’s another story.)
    Signed,
    A beleaguered and inattentive holder of a physics degree.

  10. #10 by Cannonball Jones on February 4, 2009 - 5:37 am

    Only as much as 500 homes? That is priceless :-) Joking aside I’m pretty staggered by the power of this thing, it’s gotten to the point where I actually can’t get my head around the figures any more. The real question is will it be able to play Fallout 3 on full graphics settings?

  11. #11 by Jim Fiore on February 4, 2009 - 9:31 am

    I glossed over that. I was thinking they meant 6 MWH per year.
    In my freshman courses I explain the difference between energy and power via a bottle of soda (which, invariably, at least one student has at hand). That is, the bottle contains a certain amount of food energy (maybe 260 kcals). Whether you sip it or gulp it, once the bottle is finished, you have hoarded a specific amount of (potential) energy. Now, to use it up, you could go run a couple miles (all gone in short order, a high power) or sit back and watch TV (lasts much longer, low power).

  12. #12 by hinschelwood on February 4, 2009 - 12:35 pm

    A few years ago, I read a novel written in 1950. It referred to the wonder of electronic calculating machines that could perform 50,000 calculations per second. Amazingly, that data point fits very nicely on the graph you post.

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