A few months ago, I posted here about a couple of scientists who’d adapted Playstation consoles to serve as computers – number-crunchers – for their work.

Now we learn of Roadrunner, a new supercomputer that’s cracked the one-petaflop ‘boundary’ – over one thousand trillion calculations per second. For those interested in the supercomputing technicalities, there’s a good discussion here, and a feel-good movie about Roadrunner here. Briefly, it uses different types of processors to tackle different elements of a computing problem.

Its speed is stunning. Think about it. 1,000,000,000,000,000. One quadrillion. The mind simply can’t comprehend it as a number.

In terms of computing history, think of it this way. We used to calculate the speed of a processor in instructions per second, or IPS. An instruction would be defined as the computer cycle needed to process one operation against one location in the computer’s memory: for example, multiplying one number by another. Placing the number to be multiplied into a given memory location would be one instruction. Getting the second number would be a second instruction; performing the actual multiplication would be a third; and storing the result in another memory location would be a fourth.

Back in the early to mid 1970’s, when I got into computers for the first time, corporate mainframe computers typically operated at one to three million IPS, or MIPS. The first IBM PC, in 1981, operated at way less than one MIP, whilst mainframe computers of that period ran at ten to fifty MIPS.

The Sony Playstation 3 processor, as introduced, ran at 10.24 billion MIPS in 2006. That processor has now been enhanced by IBM, and is the heart of the new Roadrunner system. There are 6,948 dual-core computer chips and 12,960 ‘cell engines’ in Roadrunner – each of the latter operating at least as fast as the Playstation 3 processor, probably faster. Even at an equivalent speed, that’s a raw combined processing power of 132,710 billion MIPS.

132,710,000,000,000,000,000,000 instructions per second.

1,000,000,000,000,000 calculations per second.

Suddenly I feel old and creaky . . .

Peter

Great; now the next windows version will list that as a minimum system requirement.