The world's fastest supercomputers are still getting faster, but it's taking them longer

The latest Top500 list shows that supercomputers are getting better, but more slowly.

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The performance of modern supercomputers is growing slower than it has in almost 30 years, according to the latest iteration of the bi-yearly Top500 list, which, as the name suggests, classifies the 500 most powerful computer systems around the world. 

A record low number of new entrants were registered for the November 2020 classification. With only 44 new devices recorded, the list has never seen such a small turnover since it was first published in 1993. The numbers compare poorly to years like 2007, when more than 300 new devices made it to the ranking.  

This was mostly blamed on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, which drove investment in commercial high-performance computing systems to an all-time low.  

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In parallel, a significant slow-down was noted in the performance growth curve of the devices that featured on the list. Performance used to multiply by 1,000 every 11 years, noted the scientists who put the list together; it will now take 20 years to achieve the same growth. 

The Top500 list is compiled twice a year by a group of four researchers, and started off as an exercise for a small conference in Germany some 27 years ago. The authors, out of curiosity, revisited the ranking a few months later, and eventually decided to transform the list into a regular update.  

Topping the Top500 for the second time in a row this time was Japan's Fugaku supercomputer, which achieved a world record of 442 petaflops – only a "modest increase", according to the authors, from the 416 petaflops the system showed off when it debuted in June 2020. 

A petaflop describes the ability of a computer to do one quadrillion floating point operations per second. The entry level to the Top500 list currently stands at 1.32 petaflops, which was again deemed a "small increase" from the 1.23 petaflops recorded in the previous ranking. 

At 442 petaflops, Fugaku stands a long way ahead of its competitors. The supercomputer, in fact, has three times more capability than the number two system on the list, IBM's Summit, which is located at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US, and has a performance of 148.8 petaflops.

Fugaku was jointly developed by Fujitsu and the Riken Center for Computational Science in Kobe, Japan, and is already used to fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, to better understand the virus and to design drugs that might counter it. In the long-term, Fugaku will also be leveraged for disaster-prevention simulations of earthquakes and tsunami, as well as manufacturing applications and new material design. 

The researchers said that the overall performance of the world's supercomputers is slowing down as Moore's law starts hitting significant technological barriers, and processors struggle to increase their capability as quickly as before. While many governments have pledged to build exascale systems – that can perform a quintillion calculations each second – in the next couple of years, therefore, a more realistic timeline might be necessary. 

One of the list's authors, Erich Strohmaier, predicted that a supercomputer capable of achieving one exaflop should not be expected before the second half of the 2020s, which his colleagues labeled as the "optimistic" forecast

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The US is currently building two exascale computing systems, which are expected to launch next year, while China has previously pledged to hit the mark in 2020. The EU has also announced a series of upcoming exaflop-capable computing projects. 

The computing power enabled by exascale supercomputers would hugely benefit precision medicine, regional climate simulation, materials discovery and design, but also drive research in the fundamental forces of the universe, the conversion of plants to biofuels, and much more.

It is still unclear where the first exascale achievement will take place, but the latest iteration of the Top500 list shows a clear lead from Chinese systems, which represent 212 machines in the ranking, while the US only holds 113 systems. Japan, although holding the most powerful supercomputer by far, only has 34 supercomputers that have entered the list. 

In continuation of previous trends, the new list also reflected Intel's clear domination of the processor market share, with over 90% of the systems equipped with Xeon or Xeon Phi chips.