China can’t seem to stop surprising us nowadays. After their recent announcement that they are closing down over 100 coal power plant projects, now comes another remarkable news story — they’re saying that this might be the year the world gets its first glimpse of their exascale supercomputer.
What exactly is an ‘exascale’ supercomputer? It’s a super supercomputer. And if it actually works, it will be the world’s fastest computer ever — able to perform 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 calculations per second. Those seemingly endless zeroes represent a quintillion or one billion billion. At that unheard computing speed, tackling complicated mathematical equations, medical modelling tasks, code breaking, nuclear test research, weather forecasting, scientific processes simulations, and many other complex problems will become that much easier. And that’s probably an understatement.
As reported by Chinese news agency Xinhua, Zhang Ting, an engineer at China’s National Computer Centre said, “the next-generation exascale computer will not only lead in calculation speed, but also in data transmission efficiency.”
According to Zhang, work on their prototype is going extremely well, much better than expected so instead of their original estimation that it will be completed by 2018, it looks like the electronic machine will be ready sooner, probably within this year. To be clear, that’s only the prototype. It will take a few more years for the finished model to be fully functional.
China introduced its first supercomputer in June 2016. They call it the Sunway TaihuLight, and its peak performance is at 124.5 petaflops, which made it the world’s first computer system that operated beyond 100 petaflops. ‘Peta’ is the prefix used for ‘quadrillion’ while ‘flops’ is short for floating point operations per second. The bigger the number of ‘flops’, the faster and more powerful the computer is.
A computer that can compute at the speed of 1 quadrillion calculations per second is referred to as a ‘petascale’ machine, and the computing speed is measured in ‘petaflops’. Going further, ‘exa’ is the prefix used for ‘quintillion’, which is why China’s next super supercomputer in the works is being referred to as an ‘exascale’ computer. And they are expecting to finish building this in 2020, three years sooner than the US which is also working on their own exascale computer but are not expecting it to be operational until year 2023.
If China succeeds in being the first to build a fully operational exascale computer, they will be able to re-establish their dominance in the world’s supercomputer race as they will then have the top three supercomputers. And even if the US currently has five supercomputers in the top ten list, China’s top two are far more powerful than those five. And the one that’s coming is even more powerful.