Who remembers when computers were big enough to need an entire room to hold? Nowadays, we carry systems more advanced than old supercomputers in our front pockets, but work continues on building more powerful machines for scientists, engineers, and the military.
Right now, experts at the U.S. Department of Energy are announcing the world’s fastest supercomputer will be completed by the year 2021. This system, called “Frontier,” will offer processing power unlike anything seen before — and bring game-changing data speeds for simulations in nuclear engineering, climate research, and military tactics.
We’ve had supercomputers in the U.S. before, behind systems like our nuclear arsenal, but they’ve never been this powerful. In fact, this next generation supercomputer has as much power as 160 of the second fastest model combined. You won’t believe what this machine is capable of.
How powerful is the Frontier supercomputer?
To understand how fast the Frontier system is, you’ll need to know about what insiders call “exascale computing.” This refers to the next generation of processing power, which is critical in the industries Frontier will be serving. In exascale computing, speed is measured in the amount of calculations a computer can do per second — but on a massive scale.
In its upcoming form, Frontier will be capable of making quintillions of calculations per second, a speed that’s referred to as “exaflops.” To get an idea of how massive this is, that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 high-level computations happening every second! Your smartphone barely scratches that number, let alone your computer.
To better illustrate Frontier’s monstrous power, imagine you’re feeding it the kind of data you would normally use in daily life. Frontier can handle 24 million times the amount of data that an average internet connection could handle, and could process up to 100,000 high definition movies each second. That’s a shockingly large amount of data running through one system!
What will Frontier be used for?
So we have this insanely powerful computer, but its existence does beg the question: why spend so much money developing something consumers can’t even use?
In truth, Frontier is going to need all of the power it can get. The computations this supercomputer will run are some of the most challenging mathematical problems that human beings are capable of understanding. In particular, rocketry will be one area Frontier is bound to shine.
The reason rocketry is so complex is the sheer amount of issues that getting an object to space runs into. Not only does your rocket need to escape Earth’s gravity, but it’s angle, fuel expenditure, and velocity must all be taken into account.
Now, on top of all these complications, imagine your rocket needs to return back to Earth and land in a different place with total accuracy. These are the kind of equations that power our nuclear arsenal. It makes sense if you think about it. A nuclear missile must fly to space, come back to Earth, and strike another continent, perhaps even somewhere on the other side of the planet!
These equations make for scary math (and scary real-world results,) but they’re critical to protecting our country and deterring other nuclear powers — many of whom have supercomputers of their very own.
That being said, Frontier will also be useful to scientists who study crucial issues like climate change, defending Earth from threats like asteroids, and solving mysteries of deep-space objects like black holes.
Next time someone says a difficult task “isn’t rocket science,” you can thank your lucky stars it isn’t. Otherwise, you’d need a computer like Frontier. And a room the size of two basketball courts to house it.