China’s National Supercomputer Centre has announced that they are completing efforts on the first prototype of an exascale computer which they have named Tianhe-3 . This computer will be the first to attain 1 exaFLOPS (EFLOPS) or 1×1018 calculations per second (1,000,000,000,000,000,000; a billion billion or quintillion). FLOPS is just a way to track the calculations per second computers can perform. For those unaware, your average supercomputer ranges in the teraFLOPS (TFLOPS) range or 1×1012 calculations per second (1,000,000,000,000; a trillion) to the petaFLOPS(PFLOPS) range or 1×1015 calculations per second (1,000,000,000,000,000; a billion million or quadrillion). All of the current record breaking supercomputers range in the tens to hundreds of PFLOPS with China’s Tianhe-2 ranking 2nd at 33.86 PFLOPS and the Sunway TaihuLight ranking 1st with 93.01 PFLOPS.
Now that all this math is up here let’s look at some more. Most modern laptops range in the gigaFLOPS (GFLOPS) range for reference to that massive number above. That’s 1×109 calculations per second (1,000,000,000; a billion) and this is around the level you can expect from the devices you surround yourself with. I understand you may have trouble wrapping your head around the massive numbers we’re dealing with here but think about this. With this base statistic, say 10 GFLOPS per laptop, maybe I can help you visualize this number. 100 laptops would be 1 TFLOPS so roughly a medium size lecture hall in a university. 100,000 would be 1 PFLOPS which is about the size of 2 full capacity Yankee Stadiums. For 1 EFLOPS you would need 100,000,000 laptops, roughly the population of Ethiopia or the Philippines. This is what you should see to understand how massive this accomplishment is. Imagine an entire country of this size all working together, each person with a job, to just calculate a solution. But what kind of solution?
The article I have here states, “[E]xascale supercomputers will more realistically simulate the processes involved in precision medicine, regional climate, additive manufacturing, the conversion of plants to biofuels, the relationship between energy and water use, the unseen physics in materials discovery and design, the fundamental forces of the Universe, and much more.” These are just some of the examples and we will have to wait to see what else they can be capable of. China has estimated it will take them until 2020 to have a fully operational model. In the meantime the U.S. will keep playing catch-up as they try to match China even though it will take them longer. Congratulations to China on one of humanity’s most important achievements.