From Frontier to France's Adastra, here are the top 10 fastest supercomputers in the world. Image: Unsplash/Taylor Vick
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- The US has retaken the top spot in the race to build the world’s fastest supercomputer.
- 'Frontier' is capable of more than a billion, billion operations a second, making it the first exascale supercomputer.
- Supercomputers have been used to discover more about diseases including COVID-19 and cancer.
- Fun fact: there might be faster supercomputers out there whose operators didn’t submit their systems to be ranked.
A huge system called Frontier has put the US ahead in the race to build the world’s fastest supercomputer. This and other of the speediest computers on the planet promise to transform our understanding of climate change, medicine and the sciences by processing vast amounts of data more quickly than would have been thought possible even a few years ago.
Leading the field in the TOP500 rankings, Frontier is also said to be the first exascale supercomputer. This means it is capable of more than a billion, billion operations a second (known as an Exaflop).
Frontier might be ahead, but it has plenty of rivals. Here are the 10 fastest supercomputers in the world today:
1. Frontier, the new number 1, is built by Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and housed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee, USA.
2. Fugaku, which previously held the top spot, is installed at the Riken Center for Computational Science in Kobe, Japan. It is three times faster than the next supercomputer in the top 10.
3. LUMI is another HPE system and the new number 3, crunching the numbers in Finland.
4. Summit, an IBM-built supercomputer, is also at ORNL in Tennessee. Summit is used to tackle climate change, predict extreme weather and understand the genetic factors that influence opioid addiction.
5. Another US entry is Sierra, a system installed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, which is used for testing and maintaining the reliability of nuclear weapons.
6. China’s highest entry is the Sunway TaihuLight, a system developed by the National Research Center of Parallel Computer Engineering and Technology and installed in Wuxi, Jiangsu.
7. Perlmutter is another top 10 entry based on HPE technology.
8. Selene is a supercomputer currently running at AI multinational NVIDIA in the US.
9. Tianhe-2A is a system developed by China’s National University of Defence Technology and installed at the National Supercomputer Center in Guangzhou.
10. France’s Adastra is the second-fastest system in Europe and has been built using HPE and AMD technology.
Supercomputers are exceptionally high-performing computers able to process vast amounts of data very quickly and draw key insights from it. While a domestic or office computer might have just one central processing unit, supercomputers can contain thousands.
To achieve such formidable processing speeds, a supercomputer needs to be big. Each of Frontier’s 74 cabinets is as heavy as a pick-up truck, and the $600 million machine has to be cooled by 6,000 gallons of water a minute.
The speed of the latest generation of supercomputers can help solve some of the toughest global problems, playing a part in developing vaccines, testing car designs and modelling climate change.
In Japan, the Fugaku system was used to research COVID-19’s spike protein. Satoshi Matsuoka, director of Riken Center for Computational Science, says the calculations involved would have taken Fugaku’s predecessor system “days, weeks, multiple weeks”. It took Fugaku three hours.
Supercomputers are being used to support healthcare in the US, too. IBM says its systems support the search for new cancer treatments by quickly analysing huge amounts of detailed data about patients.
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IBM also says its fastest systems will help scientists identify the next generation of materials which manufacturers may use to make better batteries, building materials and semiconductors.
The 10 fastest supercomputers are impressive, but it is possible there are other, even quicker systems out there. According to the New York Times, experts believe two systems in China beat Frontier in the race to be the first exascale computer. But the operators of these supercomputers have not submitted test results to the Top500 rankings, perhaps due to geopolitical tensions between the US and China.
Intelligence agencies and some companies might want to keep their supercomputers secret, as Simon McIntosh-Smith from the University of Bristol, UK, said to the New Scientist. “Certainly in the [US], some of the security forces have things which would put them at the top … there are definitely groups who obviously wouldn’t want this on the list.”
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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