Turning Japanese: The World’s Most Powerful Computer

The rivalry between the U.S. and China has been ongoing for many decades and exists on many levels, from trade wars to industrial & traditional espionage as each seeks to gain the upper hand over the other. Cyber and economic espionage features strongly with China accused of being behind some 80% of economic espionage incidents against the U.S. 

Progress in the field of technology is highly competitive and the two superpowers have constantly been seeking to develop the world’s most powerful supercomputer, but in a surprising turn of events, both countries have been surpassed by Japan.

Fugaku Rises 

Fugaku takes its name from an alternative name for Japan’s iconic Mount Fuji. It began development in 2014 at the RIKEN centre for Computational Science located in Kobe, Japan. Although not scheduled to go into full operation until 2021, some elements of the computer began operating in June of 2020. 

Fugaku is what is called a ‘petascale’ computer. Petascale refers to a computer that can calculate a minimum of 1015 FLOPS (floating point operations per second). The first computer that reached this milestone was IBM’s Roadrunner in 2008. To try and put that into some perspective, that minimum figure is one quadrillion (or 1000 trillion) and since 2017, most supercomputers actually reach the 100 quadrillion level. 

To try and put it in an even simpler perspective, one of the previous holders of the world’s most powerful computer, Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Summit, could calculate something in one second that would take an average person 6.35 billion years. Even in simpler terms, the computing power of these technological behemoths is mind-boggling to anyone without an in-depth technical grasp and knowledge of the field.

Technical Peaks

While there is little doubt that Fugaku’s reign may be brief, it is still a great accomplishment for Japan. In fact, Fugaku attained (so far) a peak performance of 0.54 exaflops (the next step up from petaflops, 1 exaflop is approximately the equivalent of 50 million laptops). 

Fugaku has been built using Fujitsu’s A64FX microprocessor and uses a total of 158,976 of these microprocessors to achieve its sensational speeds. Each chip has 48 CPU cores and consists of 396 racks each containing 384 processing nodes. 

As with other petascale computers, Fugaku runs on the Linux operating system. Cost wise, it was reported in 2018 that the Fugaku project would cost in excess of $1 billion. However, experts estimate that future petascale – and exascale – computers will cost less as the technology needed becomes more widespread.

Next Generation

How long Fugaku will hold onto 1st place is anyone’s guess. With four major players in the supercomputer field – Japan, U.S.A., China, and the E.U. – and with ongoing espionage and technical plagiarism, it probably will not be long until the next milestone of 1 exaflop is reached. Who reaches that milestone first is also anyone’s guess. What does seem hard to fathom is exactly what practical solutions these offer beyond computational and engineering problems.

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