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AT LARGE: Velocitas super omnia

AT LARGE: Velocitas super omnia

I've got myself all excited, in a Big-Kevish sort of way, which I haven't felt in some time. The source of my excitement is the news that a computer in Japan has set a new benchmark for processor speed.

Now, I know what you're thinking: processor speed, schmo-cessor speed, right? I'm the same way myself, usually. But this is because advances in processor speeds are usually measured in relatively small increments - 10 per cent faster, or maybe 20, or my favourite: "30 per cent faster for certain operations". Generally it's meaningless and makes no difference to anyone but the marketers (and, to be fair, IT publications that thrive on "performance showdown" headlines).

Not this time. According to the Linpack Report, which tracks supercomputer performance, the Earth Simulator in Kanagawa, Japan recently clocked up 35.61 trillion floating point operations per second. The previous record was held by IBM's ASCI White at Livermore Labs, which clocked up a comparatively paltry 7.23 teraflops (which makes my computer's 5.3 gigaflops seem a little, well, floppy). I'm sure the designers of the Earth Simulator would have been crowing had their creation bested IBM's by just a percentage point or two - imagine how they are about beating it five times over.

The computer boasts 640 "nodes", each containing eight NEC Vector processors, spread over an area roughly the size of three tennis courts. (So nyahh if you're still impressed by dual-processor PCs.) They're linked by 83,000 bits of copper wire totalling over 2900 kilometres of cable. Which is to say, if you're thinking about rushing out to buy one for your home office, you'll need a lot of space. And, I imagine, several power points.

But you can see where my excitement comes from. A fivefold speed improvement points to genuine insight and innovation in an industry that many of us thought had become somewhat moribund. NEC may well have got away with making this machine a bit faster than ASCI White, or by building it in a range of different colours or exotic shapes. Instead, it actually made the thing significantly faster, even to the casual observer. Bravo, bravissimo.

To put it in perspective, the newest, most whiz-bang swish machine from the top speed-demon vendor that you've got in your shop in very limited numbers, just to show to those few customers with extreme performance requirements, is some thirty thousand times slower than this beast. With one of these on (or, perhaps, surrounding) your desk, you could make Windows XP run almost as fast as it appears to in the ads.

Imagine, if you will for a moment, how fast it could run Quake.

Matthew JC. Powell can't afford one of these. Donations to mjcp@optushome.com.au.


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