For many the advent of the supercomputer has been something of a disappointment. There is no doubt about the capabilities and the pure computing power, but how has mankind actually benefited from this, do these computers help solve problems in Africa for example. The Titan supercomputer is a magnificent machine, capable of performing 20,000 trillion calculations every second. It lives at the Oak Ridge Computer Facility and is estimated to be the world’s most powerful supercomputer in existence. Imagine the computing power, it is the equivalent of every member of the human race carrying out 3 million calculations every second – that’s some serious number crunching power.
Up to now though this computing power has been out of reach of most of academia unless you happened to be working for the Department of Energy in the US. However this year sees the computer being opened up for research development projects who can use the facility for benefit.
It is hoped that this computing power, can be used to help tackle some of the world’s most crucial issues – healthcare, climate, energy and how we feed our planet are some of the problems it will look at. The criteria for use is that science and research projects which have a ‘high potential for accelerating discovery and innovation’ will be able to use the facility.
There are several target areas but some of the most important from a purely human perspective are climate change, biofuels, Nuclear energy and the study of combustion. Each area could potentially provide real world benefits and each one can benefit from the computing power of Titan.
So what powers this beast of a computer? Well it’s amazingly ten times more powerful than the last system at Oak Ridge – Jaguar. Yet the system takes up about the same space and uses pretty much the same amount of electricity. Power requirements and physical space are two of the constraining factors in the creation of supercomputers. Which is why, you simply can’t keep adding CPUs to an existing system like a fast VPN there’s a limit which relies on physical bandwidth. What they did with Titan was instead to use Graphic chips instead to work alongside the existing CPUs. They worked with the company Nvidia to implement the GPUs drastically increasing computing power without the corresponding power and space requirements that would normally be required.
The top ten lists of supercomputers rarely stays the same for very long, in fact it’s updated every year or so. It’s encouraging to see one of the leaders being opened up to all sorts of research though, especially with the target areas of this research.
It’s the kind of cooperation that the internet initially promoted and in some ways still does. However in this area we are seeing increases in restrictions, blocks and filters in internet access through out the world. Many people already have to invest in software and subscriptions to access web sites depending on their location like this software for watching the BBC News Online.