IN GREEK mythology the firmament was held aloft by a titan, one of a race of deities descended from Earth and sky. So it is fitting that the Milky Way 2, or Tianhe-2 in Chinese, surpassed an American machine called Titan to become the world’ fastest supercomputer, according to a twice-yearly list published on June 16th by TOP500, an outfit which keeps score in such matters.
Today’s supercomputers are kept busy with tasks less gruelling than preventing the sky from falling. They do, though stop buildings and aeroplanes from suffering the fate, as well as helping predict weather, model various other physical phenomena, search for oil or gas reserves, encrypt and decrypt communications and simulate all manner of processes. Their speed, meanwhile, serves as a proxy for their home country’s technological prowess.
Which is why not just geeks eagerly await TOP500’s rulings. China was widely expected to reclaim the crown it first won in 2010 with Tianhe-1 but which it lost just six months later to Japan’s Riken. At 33.86 trillion floating-point operations per second (or 34 petaflops, in the jargon), Tianhe-2 is nearly ten times faster than its older sibling, and almost twice as fast as the second-placed Titan, which sits in Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee.
Tianhe-2, rumoured to cost $100m, is composed of what looks like 170 large refrigirators and occupies 720 square metres. At top speed, it consumes almost 18MW of power, enough to sustain several thousands households, more than twice as much as Titan does (though it occupies 15% less volume).
The Middle Kingdom may have pipped America to the top spot this time round, but in other respects it still lags behind. For one thing, it only has only one other machine in the top ten. The United States, by contrast, has five. It is also home to more than half of the world’s top 500 supercomputers, compared with China’s 66.
And, making the mythological analogy even more apposite, much of Tianhe-2’s gubbins, including many of its processors, come from Titan’s homeland. Only one in eight of its 3.2m processing cores is “made in China”, according to Jack Dongarra, an editor of TOP500, though that is a vast improvement from Tianhe-1, which carried no Chinese processors. Titan and its ilk may stand beneath the Milky Way. But without them, it seems, Tianhe would collapse.
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