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Science

Usual suspects China and the US dominate TOP500 supercomputers by a long flop

It's the old question: quantity or quality? Germany has nudged Japan off third spot on a Top 500 of supercomputers - it now has the most in Europe. But it lags way behind the US and China on performance.

What started as an act of curiosity has grown into the ultimate nerd's list - the TOP500 supercomputers in the world. It was inspired by a small event at the University of Mannheim in 1993, where Erich Strohmaier and Professor Hans Meuer compiled the first TOP500.

But it wasn't to be just any list. Strohmaier and Meuer wanted the TOP500 to be dynamic to reflect Moore's Law, the idea that computer performance increases exponentially on an average of every 18 months.

The TOP500 moves quicker than that, though. It's revised every six months.

And there's been some movement since June 2016.

Who's got the most?

China and the United States still host the most supercomputers. But while a year ago the US had 200 and China had 108, they have leveled out at 171 supercomputers each.

Germany has knocked Japan off third spot with 32 supercomputers, down from 33 in 2015. And Japan has 27 - it seems to have lost a whopping 10 supercomputers in the wash. Then there's France on 20 and the UK on 17.

Infografik Top500 supercomputers 2016

The list is dominated by the US and China - superpowers in computing. It shows most strikingly in terms of their performance.  

Flopping hell!

This is where the list gets interesting. Supercomputers are ranked primarily according to their performance, which is measured by power and performance.

China holds the top two spots with Sunway TaihuLight at the National Supercomputing Center in Wuxi and Tianhe-2 (MilkyWay-2) at the National Supercomputing Center in Guangzhou. The United States holds spots three, four and five, with Titan at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Sequoia at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Cori at Berkeley Lab's National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, respectively. In fact, Cori is a new entry in the top five, knocking Japan's K computer down to number seven. But for that Japan's Oakforest-PACS enters for the first time at number six.

So far so nerdy. Now let's get nerdier.

China's Sunway supercomputer is the clear "winner" in this race, and it looks like it will remain so for some time. It's performance cracks 93,014.6 petaflops. That's the number of calculations the Sunway can handle... per second.


China Spitzenreiter bei Supercomputern: Hazel Hen (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Murat)

Germany's top supercomputer "Hazel Hen" drops in TOP500 rankings

A petaflop is a quadrillion (thousand trillion) "floating point operations per second" - or FLOPS. That's a lot.

The second best supercomputer, the Tianhe-2, handles "a mere" 33,862.7 petaflops. That's a third of Sunway's performance, but still incredibly fast.

And then speeds start to drop to between 17.6 and 14 petaflops in the US, and elsewhere 10, 9, 8... until we get to Germany's Hazel Hen supercomputer at the HLRS - Höchstleistungsrechenzentrum in Stuttgart, with 5,640.2 petaflops ranked 14.         

But, again, the numbers are somewhat deceptive. So the UK has fewer supercomputers than Germany, and Switzerland and Italy have even fewer. But the UK, Switzerland and Italy's best supercomputers each outperform Hazel Hen. And it's only marginally better than Saudi Arabia's Shaheen II. Go figure.

Check out the list - even if supercomputers aren't strictly your thing. It makes fascinating reading even if only to realize which countries are in on the act, and those who aren't. China, USA, Germany, Japan, France, UK, South Korea, Russia, Finland, the Netherlands and others are all usual suspects. But who's missing and who could join the list the coming years? India, Iran, South Africa... ?

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