The physicsworld.com supercomputer
by James Dacey
Ever wondered how many “men with calculators” it takes to match a day’s worth of IBM supercomputing?
According to The Times newspaper, it’s 120 billion of them, working for 50 years.
Well, it all began yesterday at a press conference in San Francisco…
IBM revealed plans to build a supercomputer twenty times more powerful than today’s record.
The software company’s new baby is called Sequoia will be ready for action by 2012 when it takes up residence at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California.
Building and running costs will be covered by the US Department of Energy who are employing Sequoia to model the decay of the US nuclear weapons arsenal.
So what is this thing?
IBM’s geekspeak tells us that Sequoia will run at 20 petaflops: “peta” being the prefix for a quadrillion (10^15^) and FLOP standing for floating point operations per second.
The company will use their “Blue Gene” chip to make it different from a lot of other supercomputers which work by stacking up a whole load of servers.
Now, I’m no supercomputer aficionado but this computer seems substantially larger than previous computers, and, for that reason, worth reporting. The British mainstream press also thought so as the story appears on web pages of The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Times, along with a host of smaller sites.
Science journalists are always looking for “world-firsts” and “coo-wow” factor when it comes to new technologies, so it’s no real surprise that this humungous lump of American computer has received this widespread coverage.
And journalists are also committed to presenting facts in understandable, every-day terms. So it was interesting to see how the national papers would describe Sequoia’s processing power.
The Guardian, they went straight for the coo-wow, describing it as “the equivalent of more than 2m laptops.”
The Telegraph were a bit more conservative, focussing on the specific new development – “one order of magnitude quicker than its predecessor”
And then there’s The Times. Their description is – quite frankly – bizarre:
“Given an entire day, the Sequoia could match the output that 120 billion men with calculators might achieve in 50 years.”
Who are these men?
What are they calculating?
What type of calculator are they using?
Are they allowed bathroom breaks??
Ok, I’m being a little bit silly, but is a weird analogy. Quite creepy too, when you really think about it. And more than a little bit arbitrary.
So, creative physicsworld.com readers, I throw this out to you – how would you describe the computing power of IBM’s new monster machine?