Sun sets on 150,000 planets (and a prediction for two days' time)

Over here, Business Week reports that Sun has failed to get through to the next round of the American defence agency DARPA's current supercomputing project. Cray, Inc.

Over here, Business Week reports that Sun has failed to get through to the next round of the American defence agency DARPA's current supercomputing project. Cray, Inc. and IBM do, and share nearly half a billion dollars between them to grease the wheels. Bad luck, Sun.

The project is just one of the worldwide efforts to build a petaflop computer. If you've been around a while, you may remember the chase for giga- and teraflops - a billion and a thousand billion sums a second, in other words. We're still under the steely gaze of Sheriff Gordon Moore, so the move into peta - a million billion - seems almost routine. The first teraflops computer is widely agreed to have been ASCI Red, which hit its full speed of 1.3 TFLOPS in June 1997. Today, it's not unreasonable to rate an Xbox 360 at around a TFLOP. Petaflop? We'll have it on a PDA before breakfast.

But hold on. A million billion? How big is that, exactly? I was talking to one of our American colleagues, who was writing up the Sun story and had to explain what a petaflop actually was - and we agreed that it's not anything that humans can possibly imagine. It's a quadrillion sums a second - cool, if you know what a quadrillion is, which not one person in a quadrillion actually does.

So, let's say one person can do one sum in one second. How many people doing sums at the same time would it take to equal one computer running at one petaflop? Well, according to the World Population site, the population is as of this second six billion, six hundred and sixty six million, three hundred and twenty eight thousand, five hundred and thirty (and increasing at around two hundred a minute).

That means two things.

One - to match a petaflop computer we'd need just over 150,000 Earths filled with people just doing sums.

Two - in just under two days' time, if my maths is correct, the population of the Earth will reach 6,666,666,666.

Make of that what you will.