U.S. Markets closed

Six Clicks: The six fastest computers in the world

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols
In November 2014, the top six supercomputers all run Linux, but that's about the only thing they have in common.

A four-time winner, Tianhe-2, a supercomputer developed by China's National University of Defense Technology, once more took home the title as the world's fastest computer, with a performance of 33.86 petaflops (quadrillions of calculations per second) on the Linpack benchmark.

To reach that remarkable number, Tianhee-2 uses over 3 million Intel Xeon E5-2692v2 12C cores running at 2.2GHz. It's not the speed of the processor you see in modern-day supercomputers that's important; it's how you get all those processors to work in concert with each other. In addition, its main processors are backed up by Intel Xeon Phi 31S1P coprocessors.

At the Oak Ridge National Labs, where the United States pulled out the raw material for the first atomic bombs in World War II, is America's fastest supercomputer: Titan.

Titan, made by Cray — yes, the first supercomputer company is still around — uses AMD 2.2GHz Opteron 6274 16C processors to deliver 17.6 petaflops. That may not be anywhere near as fast as Tianhe-2, but Titan does it with half the electrical power and only a fifth of the cores. In short, Titan may not be number one, but it does more with less.

The world's third-fastest computer, Sequoia, is an IBM Blue Gene design. For a while, IBM ruled supercomputers with this architecture, but now, while close to the top, it's not number one. IBM has plans to take the number one spot back by 2017.

In the meantime, Sequoia works at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. There, its 1.6GHz Power BQC 16C processors deliver 17.17 petaflops to nuclear explosion simulations. Does that bother you? Look at it this way, would you rather have real nuclear tests or simulated ones? I'll take the ones in a supercomputer any time!

Remember when SPARC was an important processor and Solaris was a top operating system? Well, you might not, but I do. While Solaris doesn't even have a spot on the Top 500 supercomputer list, SPARC, thanks to Japan's K supercomputer, lives on.

This machine, which runs — surprise! — Linux uses 2GHz SPARC64 VIIIfx 8C processors to hit 10.5 petaflops of speed.

The fifth-fastest computer in the world, Mira Blue Gene, is another IBM Blue Gene design.

With more than 786,000 1.6GHz Power BQC 16C cores, Mira, which works on a variety of modelling and simulation problems at the US' Argonne National Laboratory, can hit a top speed of 8.6 petaflops. That's not bad for a computer that hasn't seen a significant update since 2012.

Europe's top supercomputer, CSCS Piz Daint, ranks number six overall. This computer, which is based in Lugano-Cornaredo, Switzerland, is a Cray design.

So far, it's hit a high of 6.3 petaflops. That speed is generated by 2.6GHz Intel Xeon E5-2670 8C processors. These, in turn, are partnered by cK20x coprocessors. While related to the graphic coprocessors you use to speed through your video games with, these high-end processors are designed for top server math performance rather than dynamic graphics.

Still, it is tempting to think what, say, Mass Effect 2 might look like on it.