Where would we be without computers? From predicting the weather and the likelihood of volcanoes erupting to modelling population density and how many stars are in our universe, the biggest computers in the world are incredible feats of science and engineering. When it comes to the question of the world’s largest computers, they are staggering in their computational power.
Put very simply, supercomputers are very big and very fast computers that can process huge amounts of data at very high speeds using thousands of processors. The term ‘super computing’ was coined by the New York World newspaper in 1929 to describe the tabulation machines IBM made for Columbia University.
Fast forward to the 1960s and a team led by Seymour Cray, known as ‘the father of supercomputing,’ built what is generally regarded as the first successful supercomputer. The CDC 6600, which was used for high-end mathematical and scientific computing, produced a performance of three megaFLOPS – or three million floating point operations – per second.
In the mid-1980s, the Cray-2 was the first to break the gigaFLOP barrier – one billion floating point operations per second – reaching 1.9 gigaFLOPS. Through the 1990s and 2000s, the teraFLOP (one trillion, or one followed by twelve zeros) and petaFLOP (one quadrillion, or one followed by fifteen zeros) barriers were breached.
The largest super computers today operate at speeds of over one exaFLOP, or one quintillion (a billion billion) floating point operations per second. That’s one followed by eighteen zeros. These are numbers that barely compute to most of us, but what are the biggest computers in the world and how big was the world’s largest computer?
Here’s our list of some of the largest and most powerful computers in the world, correct at time of writing.
Builder: Hewlett Packard/Cray | Cost: $600 million | Performance: 1.102 exaFLOPS
The biggest supercomputer in the world in terms of performance is Frontier, the world’s first exascale computer. A director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee where the supercomputer is located said ‘Frontier is ushering in a new era of exascale computing to solve the world’s biggest scientific challenges.’ Frontier has a total of 8,730,112 cores, it occupies 74, 48cm rack cabinets for a total floor area of 680 square metres and uses almost 150 kilometres of cable.
Builder: Fujitsu | Cost: $1 billion | Performance: 442 petaFLOPS
Both the world’s fastest and largest computer until 2022, Fugaku, another name for Mount Fuji, was designed to solve the world’s biggest problems including slowing down climate change. It was used to research infection risks during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is located at the RIKEN Center for Computational Science in Japan and has a total of 7,630,848 cores. It weighs around 700 tons.
Builder: Hewlett Packard/Cray | Cost: €144.5 million | Performance: 375 petaFLOPS
Europe’s biggest computer and one of the largest super computers in the world, LUMI, or Large Unified Modern Infrastructure, is located at the CSC Data Centre in Kajaani, a city in central Finland. Its processing power is equivalent to the combined performance of 1.5 million of today’s laptops. With 1,110,144 cores, LUMI is focused on global societal challenges such as climate change. On a similar topic, LUMI is one of the world’s greenest supercomputers, running on 100% hydroelectric energy. The heat it generates is also used to heat local buildings.
Builder: IBM | Cost: $325 million | Performance: 200 petaFLOPS
Like Frontier, the biggest supercomputer in the world, Summit is located at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and held the title of world’s fastest supercomputer from November 2018 to June 2020. It has a total of 2,414,592 cores and was designed to train algorithms to outperform humans in a number of areas such as image recognition and natural language processing. It is also used in the fields of extreme weather and earthquake simulation, genomics, human health and cosmology.
Builder: Sunway | Cost: $273 million | Performance: 93 petaFLOPS
Translated as ‘divine power, the light of Taihu Lake’, the Chinese-built Sunway TaihuLight, with 10,649,600 cores, was the largest computer in the world for two years before Summit was built. It is located at the National Supercomputer Centre in China’s Jiangsu Province and is used in fields such as oil prospecting, long-range weather forecasting, industrial design and pharmaceutical research.
The World’s Largest Computer
The largest component-based computer ever built was the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, or SAGE. It was a collection of networked computers to coordinate data from radar sites in order to warn of and intercept airborne attacks during the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s.
For all intents and purposes it was America’s national air defence system, and technology of such vital national importance needed one of the biggest computers in the world. Each site, of which there were over fifty, was home to the IBM AN/FSQ-7 which took up around 2,000 square metres of floor space (over a quarter of the size of a football pitch). SAGE was said to have cost more than the Manhattan Project, the American-led project to develop the first atomic weapons.