Fastest computer outstrips the stars
The Borneo Post - Sunday, 22 December, 2002
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TOKYO: The wraps have come off the world's fastest computer in Yokohama. It's so blazingly fast it performs more computations per second than there are stars in our galaxy. It's so large it's housed in a building the size of an aircraft hangar.

Running 35.6 trillion calculations per second, the Earth Simulator is the fastest super computer in the world, almost five times faster than the next best one and as fast as the top five US supercomputers combined.

For the Japanese scientists using the US$350 million (RM1.33 billion) computer, it means climate research, with its complex simulations and diverse mix of variables, is more accurate than ever before.

According to the US Department of Energy, the Earth Simulator has put American scientists at a 10-100 fold disadvantage in weather studies. And there are much deeper implications.

"The US has lost the lead in climate science research," it said in a recent report. "Since computational science contributes to DOE's energy and national security missions, the implications will be widespread and potentially grave."

For now, the Earth Simulator is being used to track global sea temperatures, rainfall and crustal movement to predict natural disasters over the next few centuries.

Tucked away in a suburban area just south of Tokyo, the computer's complex has almost 3,000 kilometers of cable roped together under its floors to keep its network running.

With its massive horsepower, the computer can model weather at 100 times the resolution of previous simulations, said Tetsuya Sato, director-general of the Earth Simulator Centre.

Built by the Tokyo-based NEC, the computer can already predict the path of a typhoon or a volcanic eruption with remarkable precision. Earthquakes are still tough to pin­point and forecast, but likely epicentres are being identified and their damage mapped out to determine which dams, buildings and highways need reinforcing.

Scroll forward a few centuries and it can show which cities will be sub­merged as sea levels rise.

Researchers say a powerful computer like the Earth Simulator could also plot the course of a pandemic like Aids, calculate the spread of a virus after a bio-terrorist attack, speed the discovery of new drugs and save millions in research by simulating the interactions between a chemical and the human body.

"The government doesn't understand how valuable this is," Sato lamented.  The Earth Simulator's implications aren't being missed overseas, however.

"Every time there's an increase in factor of speed, you open up the possibility of a new science," explained Alan Edelman, professor of Applied Mathematics at the Massa­chusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science Laboratory.

Ironically, NEC used an old technology called vector processing to achieve the Earth Simulator's stunning performance. The technology had been largely abandoned by most US manufacturers and supercomputer designers as outdated and too costly.