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China now dominates the world of supercomputers.  The Chinese have overtaken the United States and have more supercomputers in the top 500 machines than any other nation.

A survey by Top500 shows China have 202 of the world’s highest-performance machines.  The US is second in the list with 143 with Japan (35) and Germany (21) filling the minor places.  The UK has 15 supercomputers in the top 500.

The number of Chinese machines in the top 500 shows how much the country is investing in IT.  A previous survey published in June placed China behind the US with 160 supercomputers.

What is a supercomputer?

It’s pretty much what it seems.  The biggest and best and therefore fastest performing computers in the world.  Naturally enough we’re not talking about something which sits on a desk here.

A supercomputer has thousands of processors and most use an operating system based on Linux.

Why do we need supercomputers?

Somewhere in the world a mad scientist will be using a supercomputer to play solitaire.  But their usual function is to perform highly complex calculations.  This can include anything from weather forecasting to nuclear weapons simulations.  They are also used for DNA sequencing and oil prospecting.  Needless to say you need a powerful and high-performance machine to carry out these tasks.

How is performance measured?

A supercomputer’s performance is measured in petaflops.

For the tech savvy amongst you a petaflop is one thousand trillion floating point operations per second.  For the not so tech savvy that is fast.  Very fast.

In the last decade the performance of supercomputers has massively increased.

To give some perspective the highest-performing supercomputer in the world is China’s Sunway TaihuLight.  It performs at 93 petaflops.  Ten years ago the top ranked machine was the IBM Roadrunner which had a maximum speed of just over 1 petaflop.

Top five supercomputers

So which are the best performing supercomputers on the planet?  Here are the top five according to the Top500 survey. 

Rank Supercomputer Number of cores Performance
1 Sunway TaihuLight (China) 10,649,600 93.0 petaflops
2 Tianhe-2 (China) 3,120,000 33.9 petaflops
3 Piz Daint (Switzerland) 361,760 19.6 petaflops
4 Gyoukou (Japan) 19,860,000 19.1 petaflops
5 Titan (United States) 560,640 17.6 petaflops

The title of most powerful computer in the UK goes to the Met Office’s Cray XC40 system.  It has 241,920 processors and performs at just over 8 petaflops.  It comes in at number 15 on the top 500 list.



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