Heavyweights of the supercomputing world

CPUs are designed with mass appeal first to make them financially viable, but with the ability for HPC derivatives of the processor to be made. For example, of the top 10 fastest supercomputers in the world as of November 2008, none used processors that were custom-designed for the purpose. Instead, AMD Opterons, Intel Xeons and IBM PowerPCs dominate, all of which have closely related consumer equivalents.

The benefits of consumer volume for supercomputing don't stop with CPUs. Since vector performance is so important to floating-point computation, the burgeoning speed of graphics cards also promises further massive leaps in supercomputing power, particularly when harnessed by distributed computing.

The latter is racking up some rather impressive processing scores. The Folding@ Home project had reached a whopping 4.27 PFLOPS by 14 November 2008, making it the fastest supercomputer in the world by a country mile. Most tellingly, over half of this total was contributed by ATI and Nvidia GPUs. But it's also very significant that 1.7 PFLOPS of that total came from Playstation 3 games consoles. In fact, IBM's Roadrunner, which is currently the fastest standalone supercomputer in the world, uses nearly 13,000 cell processors that are closely related in design to the CPU in a Playstation 3.

So the future of supercomputing could be sitting on your desk right now. As the Folding@ Home project shows, distributed computing is already capable of achieving greater performance than the fastest standalone machines. Now that more than half the households in the developed world are online, the fabric of the Internet itself may be the future of the fastest computing on the planet.

Google certainly seems to think so. Its search engines are estimated to have over 300 TFLOPS at their disposal, and with the company getting into the application outsourcing business, maybe it won't be too long before anyone can have their very own slice of a supercomputer.


First published in PC Plus, Issue 278

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