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The 5 fastest supercomputers in the world

Speed read
  • China dominates list of the world’s fastest supercomputers, taking both first and second place
  • The US had the fastest computer in the world in 2012, but it has since fallen to fifth place
  • High capacities and processing speeds facilitate breakthroughs in everything from climate science to healthcare

Peak performance within supercomputing is a constantly moving target. In fact, a supercomputer is defined as being any machine “that performs at or near the currently highest operational rate.” The field is a continual battle to be the best. Those who achieve the top rank may only hang on to it for a fleeting moment.

Competition is what makes supercomputing so exciting, continually driving engineers to reach heights that were unimaginable only a few years ago. To celebrate this amazing technology, let’s take a look at the fastest computers as defined by computer ranking project TOP500 — and at what these machines are used for.

5. Titan (United States)

Built by CrayOak Ridge National Laboratory's Titan is the follow-up to the company’s 2005 Jaguar supercomputer. Like Jaguar, Titan is unique due to its reliance on both CPUs and GPUs. According to Cray, GPUs can handle more calculations at a time than CPUs, which allow the GPUs to do “the heavy lifting”.

<strong>The #5 Titan supercomputer</strong> at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US advances research in sustainable energy, climate change, and medicine. Courtesy Piron Guillaume/Unsplash.Cray hopes to get Titan’s performance up to 20 petaFLOPS, but TOP 500 clocked the machine at 17.59 petaFLOPS in November 2017. For reference, 17.59 petaFLOPS is equal to 17,590 trillion calculations per second. The machine also has 299,008 CPU cores and 261,632 GPU cores.

What’s more, this machine’s power is being put to good use. The S3D project focuses on modeling the physics behind combustion, which might give researchers the ability to create biofuel surrogates for gasoline. Another project called Denovo is working to find ways to increase efficiency within nuclear reactors. And a team at Brown University is using the supercomputer to model sickle cell disease, hoping to devise better treatments for a disease that affects around 100,000 Americans.

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4. Gyoukou (Japan)

Although Titan nearly finished last year as the 4th fastest computer in the world, Japan’s Gyoukou stole the spot in November. Created by ExaScaler and PEZY Computing, this machine is currently housed at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology. The machine reportedly has 19,860,000 cores and runs at speeds of up to 19.14 petaFLOPS.

<strong>Japan's Gyoukou</strong> is also a standout on the Green TOP500 thanks to its energy-efficient liquid immersion cooling tanks. Courtesy Vicor.Gyoukou is an extremely new system, presented to the public for the first time at SC17 in November. This, combined with the fact that PEZY’s president was arrested for fraud on December 4, 2017, means that the machine hasn’t had much time to prove its usefulness with real world projects. However, Gyoukou is incredibly energy efficient, with a power efficiency of 14.17 gigaFLOPS per watt.

3. Piz Daint (Switzerland)

<strong>The fastest supercomputer in Europe</strong> is named for Piz Daint, a mountain in the Swiss Alps. Courtesy Caumasee. <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en'>(CC BY-SA 3.0)</a>Named after a mountain in the Swiss Alps, Piz Daint is the Swiss National Supercomputer Centre’s contribution to the field, running at 19.59 petaFLOPS and utilizing 361,760 cores.

The machine has helped scientists at the University of Basel make discoveries about “memory molecules” in the brain. Other Swiss scientists have taken advantage of its ultra-high resolutions to set up a near-global climate simulation.

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2. Tianhe-2 (China)

<strong> China's Tianhe-2</strong> is used mainly for government security applications at China's National University of Defense Technology. Courtesy NUDT.If supercomputing were a foot race, China would be a dot on the horizon compared to the rest of the competitors. Years of hard work and research enabled the country to grab the top two spots, with Tianhe-2 coming in second. The name translates as “MilkyWay-2,” and it’s much more powerful than Piz Daint, boasting a whopping 3,120,000 cores and running at 33.86 petaFLOPS.

Developed by the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) in China, TOP500 reported that the machine is intended mainly for government security applications. This means that much of the work done by Tianhe-2 is kept secret, but if its processing power is anything to judge by, it must be working on some pretty important projects.

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1. Sunway TaihuLight (China)

When it comes to supercomputing, no other machine can touch the Sunway TaihuLight. Its processing power exceeds 93.01 petaFLOPS and it relies on 10,649,000 cores, making it the strongest supercomputer in the world by a wide margin. That’s more than five times the processing power of Titan and nearly 19 times more cores.

<strong>Supercomputers save lives</strong> by forecasting serious storms like Cyclone Felling in the Southern Indian Ocean. Courtesy William Straka, UWM/NASA/NOAA.Located at the National Supercomputing Center in Wuxi, China, TaihuLight’s creators are using the supercomputer for tasks ranging from climate science to advanced manufacturing. It has also found success in marine forecasting, helping ships avoid rough seas while also helping with offshore oil drilling.

The race to possess the most powerful supercomputer never really ends. This friendly competition between countries has propelled a boom in processing power, and it doesn’t look like it’ll be slowing down anytime soon. With scientists using supercomputers for important projects such as curing debilitating diseases, we can only hope it will continue for years to come.

Read more about what's next for supercomputers, beyond petascale:

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