New super computer is faster than 50,000 PCs, says professor | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 26.05.2009
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New super computer is faster than 50,000 PCs, says professor

Scientists and politicians met at a German research facility and turned on Europe's fastest super computer. Thomas Lippert, director of the Juelich Supercomputing Center, told Deutsche Welle about the peta computer.

Lippert in front of Jugene

Thomas Lippert and Jugene, Europe's fastest super computer

Researchers at the Juelich research center started a super computer on Tuesday that is capable of a quadrillion operations per second. An expansion of the existing super computer Jugene, the machine is currently the third fastest super computer in the world.

Thomas Lippert, the director of the Juelich Supercomputing Center explained exactly how fast the computer is and how it is used.

Deutsche Welle: What is the peta computer?

Thomas Lippert: The peta computer is a super computer, which is able to process one quadrillion computer operations per second.

This is a rather unfathomable figure: Can you put that into context?

A direct comparison is difficult because the figure is so big. But you could imagine that you would have to connect 50,000 PCs close together to reach this level of performance.

How fast is the new super computer compared to Jugene, which you also have in the Juelich center, which used to be the fast computer in Europe?

Well, the new machine is really an extension of Jugene. In the end, its power has been increased by a factor of between five and six.

Will this super computer also be called Jugene?

Yes. The old Jugene was simply restructured, enlarged if you will. We also installed a new cooling system, a hydro-air cooling system. You wouldn't believe it, but the computer has cabinets built in that are filled with water, which have the effect of cooling the air that runs through the computer's processor. It works like a car engine cooling system, actually.

Coolant pipes as part of a Super Computer

Coolant flows through these pipes to keep the 295,000 CPUs from overheating

How many processors are in this new super computer?

In this machine there are approximately 73,000 processors, which are all made of four parts. So that would make about 292,000 processing units.

Is the entire computer in Juelich?

Yes. The machine in its entirety is stored in Juelich. If you were to separate it, problems could arise with the time it takes to exchange information between the different parts. This gap would be too much for the processors to handle - they wouldn't know what to do. That is why they have to be packed tightly together, and the computer definitely has to be in one place.

Is there actually a big difference between the old Jugene and the new super computer?

You bet! The new machine is much faster and able to solve many more problems. For a problem that would have taken Jugene five months, the new super computer needs only one month. In general, it can take on about five times more projects, which is obviously an enormous difference.

Workers laying cable

It took workers months of labor...

Are you in charge of who can use the super computer?

No (laughing) ... We are in charge of the preparation and maintenance of the machine, its software, and the entire mathematical and computer-technical bases. Who actually works with the machine is up to the scientists, and it works on the so-called peer-review-system. This means that representatives from different scientific fields and international appraisers are in charge of determining who can use the computer.

What kinds of scientists come to you and what kinds of problems do they wish to solve?

A myriad of things are done with this machine. From nanotechnology to nanoelectronics, from materials science to biology and engineering. Particle physicists also work with the super computer, including problems from fundamental particle physics and astronomy. If you are looking to know, for example, how the galaxies evolved from the original microwave dominated atmosphere, that's something we could simulate.

Computer cable lay 20 km of cable...

Is demand for use of the machine high?

Very high. There are five to 10 times more applications than we could ever take on.

Is it your goal to make this super computer in Juelich the top in its field?

No, that's not really what we're about. What's important to us is to create an optimal machine for the advancement of science, which science desperately needs at the moment, as we've seen from the high demand. The critical point here is to assist scientists with their invaluable research projects, like many of those that have been published in the last couple years in the publications "Nature" and "Science."

Computers seem to be developing faster and faster. So much so, that many are outdated just after being brand new. What is the future of the super computer? Will there soon be a model that can perform 2 quadrillion operations per second?

Yes, in fact, we will have such a model in one or two years. The more processing units you bring together, the more functions the machine can perform. As the machine becomes more powerful, however, it becomes more difficult to coordinate. This last aspect will be the most important task for us techies in the future.

Computer cable

...for the super computer's data transfer system

Will there ever be a super computer that can perform on the level of the human brain?

That could happen, but you have to keep in mind that a computer processes data differently than the human brain. I am confident, however, that we will one day be able to use a super computer to explore how the human brain functions. There is actually already fascinating research being conducted in this area using our machines.

Interview: Judith Hartl (glb)
Editor: Sean Sinico

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