Top 10 supercomputers of 2017

These 10 supercomputers are the world’s fastest.


The fastest of the fast

Yes, your new gaming PC that supports VR headsets is impressively fast. But can it simulate the entire universe over millions of years? Shed light on the forces that cause destructive summer storms in Europe? Ensure the safety and reliability of nuclear weapons? We didn’t think so; those are jobs for supercomputers.

Supercomputers, also known as High Performance Computers (HPCs), are hard at work at universities, research labs and other facilities around the world. Twice yearly, the TOP500 project ranks the world’s supercomputers in computational power using the Linpack benchmark. The most recent list, released in June 2017, is topped by two Chinese supercomputers, though U.S. supercomputers earned five of the top 10 slots. Here are the top 10, arranged in reverse order.

No. 10: Trinity

Tenth-ranked Trinity, a Cray XC40 system running at Los Alamos National Laboratory, has an incredibly important job: help ensure that the U.S.’s nuclear stockpile is “safe, reliable, and secure.” Trinity does its highly classified data analysis for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Stockpile Stewardship Program. It’s worth noting that the last U.S. nuclear test was conducted in September 1992. Since then, the Stockpile Stewardship Program “has ensured the safety and reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons without full-scale testing,” relying instead upon the Trinity supercomputer, according to the Oak Ridger newspaper. Speed: 8.1 petaflops.

No. 9: Mira

Mira is an IBM BlueGene/Q system cranking away at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. Since its TOP500 debut at no. 3 in June 2012, Mira has slowly slipped in ranking, from fourth to fifth to sixth place and, since November 2016, ninth. The 8.59-petaflop powerhouse conducts scientific research in seismology, climatology, material science, transportation efficiency and computational chemistry. In August 2017 Mira acquired a supercomputer colleague, Theta, at the Argonne facility, according to MachineDesign. Theta is a Cray XC40 that ranks no. 16 on TOP500’s June 2017 list. Speed: 8.59 petaflops.

No. 8: K Computer

Remember the K car—which kept Chrysler from driving into a ditch, financially speaking? Imagine merging that successful 1980s automobile with Fujitsu’s K computer. Aside from being a really, really big car, it could perform advanced climate research, disaster prevention and medical research, each of which could come in handy as you cruise around town. The K computer is installed at the Riken Advanced Institute for Computational Science in Kobe, Japan. It has slowed down a tad in ranking since hitting no. 1 on TOP500’s chart in June and November 2011. Speed: 10.5 petaflops.

No. 7: Oakforest-PACS

Oakforest-PACS is a Fujitsu PRIMERGY system operated by Japan’s Joint Center for Advanced High Performance Computing. It’s installed in the Information Technology Center at the University of Tokyo’s Kashiwa Campus, though its number crunching superpowers also benefit the University of Tsukuba, according to Inside HPC. Oakforest-PACS is the fastest supercomputer in Japan, just ahead of Fujitsu’s K computer at no. 8, and was built for R&D tasks in science and technology. Speed: 13.5 petaflops.

No. 6: Cori

This Cray XC40 goliath is named for Gerty Cori, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine—and the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize in science. Her first name, Gerty, was inspired by an Austrian warship, and fittingly, Cori (who died in 1957) refused to be marginalized in science and medicine. That’s quite a legacy to live up to. Cori the supercomputer does its best as the centerpiece of a new Big Data Center, a collaboration between the U.S. National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, Intel and five Intel Parallel Computing Centers. Speed: 14 petaflops.

No. 5: Sequoia

Sequoia, the IBM BlueGene/Q supercomputer, slipped to fifth place from its no. 4 position of June and November 2016. If that weren’t enough, consider this backhanded compliment from the U.S. Department of Defense: “The IBM Sequoia, one of the fastest conventional supercomputers, has less computing power than the brain and consumes 7.9 megawatts.” Nonetheless, Sequoia, installed at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is doing important work. It’s tapped to quantify uncertainties “in numerical simulations of nuclear weapons performance” and perform “advanced weapons science calculations,” says the Computation website. Speed: 17.1 petaflops.

No. 4: Titan

Last year’s Piz Daint upgrade knocked Titan down a notch, from third to fourth place. The Cray XK7 megamachine, which ranked no. 1 in November 2012, is installed at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. If you’ve experienced sleepless nights, wondering how galactic winds affect star formations in galaxies, rest assured. A University of California, Santa Cruz, research team is on the case, using Titan’s massive compute powers to generate “nearly a trillion-cell simulation of an entire galaxy, which would be the largest simulation of a galaxy ever,” according to Science Daily. Speed: 17.5 petaflops.

Swiss National Supercomputing Centre

No. 3: Piz Daint

Piz Daint is a mountain in the Swiss Alps whose name translates roughly to “inner peak.” It’s also the name of the planet’s third most powerful supercomputer, installed (where else?) in Switzerland, at the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre. In June 2017, this Cray XC50 system rose from no. 8 to third place thanks to a substantial 2016 upgrade that tripled its performance. Climate scientists in Bern recently tapped Piz Daint to help them understand the causes of Europe’s destructive summer storms. Speed: 19.5 petaflops.

No. 2: Tianhe-2

Pity the Tianhe-2, or as it’s known in English, Milky Way-2, which was developed by China’s National University of Defense Technology and is deployed at the National Supercomputer Center in Guangzho, China. The 33.86-petaflop powerhouse ranked first on six consecutive Top500 lists from June 2013 through November 2015 but slipped to no. 2 on each list since. There’s a story behind that slip: In April 2015, the U.S. government rejected Intel’s application for an export license that would have increased the power of Tianhe-2’s CPUs and coprocessor boards due to concerns about the supercomputer being used for “nuclear explosive activities.” Speed: 33.8 petaflops.

No. 1: Sunway TaihuLight

Sunway TaihuLight remains the world’s most powerful supercomputer (it also claimed the title twice last year). This beast lives at the National Supercomputing Center in Wuxi, China, where its 10 million+ CPU cores have created the biggest, most detailed simulation of the universe. The simulation covers millions of years in the universe’s history, with the goal of helping scientists uncover new discoveries. And it’s “just a warm-up exercise,” says an author of the simulation study. Reportedly China is building “an even larger computer that will be capable of performing over ten times as many calculations as TaihuLight,” Popular Mechanics reports. Speed: 93 petaflops.