Computers don't stay super for long

By David Zizzo Published: September 26, 2006
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ready, Topdawg has slipped to 88th.

"Relative to the fastest computer in the world, it gets worse and worse because the fastest supercomputer gets better and better," Neeman said. That's why Neeman qualifies all talk of rankings with the phrase "at this minute."

Blame it on Moore's Law. That's the nerdly rule of thumb that says, because of technological advances, about every 18 months the number of circuits you can cram onto a computer chip doubles. So, the number of calculations, the speed, of computers of a given size doubles with it.

"Your half-life of being on the high end is on the order of two or three years," said Stephen Wheat, senior director for high-performance computing for Intel and a graduate of Tulsa's Booker T. Washington High School. "Within five years, it's easily well surpassed by much less expensive and smaller systems."

That's why Topdawg is six times as fast as Boomer, the former big dog on this block. Boomer began at 196th-fastest in November 2002, but fell off the Top 500 list by June 2004.

It was turned over to the physics department.

Another of Topdawg's predecessors is up for sale.

The march of progress creates obsolescence, but, Wheat said, because things get cheaper, it also brings opportunity. "The realm or reach of high-performance computing is stretching into spaces it hadn't been before."

Like Neeman's pocket, for instance — that's where Neeman keeps his PDA (personal digital assistant).

"This is more powerful than the most powerful supercomputer 20 years ago," he said, holding the tiny computer.

For now, Topdawg, as far as Neeman knows, is the biggest computer in Oklahoma and the fastest in the Big 12 Conference, except for (Sooner fans, avert your eyes) the University of Texas, which has a monster eight times its size.

In the super-geek world, size matters. For years, there's been a running "computer arms race" among the United States, Europe and Japan for the biggest and fastest, Neeman said.

In supercomputing, we've come a long way, baby. But we've got a long way to go.

In a decade, for instance, Neeman figures computers will have transistors the size of a molecule. That will be roughly 100 times more circuitry available and 100 times the speed.

In his lifetime, Neeman said, we might see circuits made of DNA and enzymes. Beyond that, maybe quantum computers using some of the smallest known particles in the universe.

What that will mean for computing abilities is hard to know.

For now, all that is certain is that more capacity is better. And in a couple of years, Topdawg won't be a top dog.

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Super or not?
To be a supercomputer, Henry Neeman said, a machine must be:

• One of the biggest, fastest computers in the world "right this minute."

• At least 100 times as big and fast as a typical desktop PC "right this minute."

To be on the Top 500 list of supercomputers, he said, a computer must be at least 500 times as big and fast as a typical PC "right this minute."

To check the Top 500, go online to www.top500.org/list/2006/06/100.


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