Time was, a teraflop (that's one trillion, or 10^12 floating point operations per second) was just a dream. But the supercomputer ASCI Red nabbed that prize in 1996. Since then, it's been the grueling, relentless march to a petaflop--that's 10^15 flops for those keeping count--a goal achieved by the Riken MDGrape-3 computer in 2006 (some dispute this claim, as the machine is so specialized it can't properly run the benchmark software. For them, we present the latest iteration of IBM's Blue Gene/P, which is purportedly capable of a petaflop as well). Now it's the exaflop, 10^18 flops, that puts a twinkle in the eyes of supercomputer aficionados.
The Institute for Advanced Architectures, a joint project between Sandia and Oak Ridge national labs, has started preparing the foundations upon which to build the world's first exaflop computer, and they have $7.4 million from the government to get things going. One major challenge is data management -- it's relatively easy to build a faster processor, but it is not so easy to get data to hungry processors in a timely fashion. Another is the software architecture, and how to most efficiently distribute the processing to each of the cores. Finally, with current technologies, the IAA calculates that an exaflop computer would need tens of megawatts of power to operate, costing the lucky owner some tens of millions of bucks a year in energy bills. Researchers with the IAA hope to bring down the energy requirements drastically to keep the computer relatively economical, at least when it comes to the Con Ed bill.
No word on a timeline (it only took a decade, give or take, to get from a teraflop to a petaflop), and who knows what kinds of hurdles will materialize once research gets going, but, hey, what's another 10 years to wait for better weather reports?
So, these blazing fast processor stacks are all going to fall to the exaflop architecture, whatever form that takes. Has anyone actually run even one of the petaflop machines with enough surrounding hardware, firmware, and software to do anything complete on it's own yet? Even one project? If not, what has actually been accomplished? All of our National Labs and stronger science based Universities are working hands on with the technology, right now, that will be the energy industry in the next cycle. There have been many advances in this or that science that were not ready to go yet when the time came for "time for talking is done, build it", and it looks more like that will be the case here, where those who are less able to implement the cutting edge of technology on it's cusp; end up being more the beneficiary of the true progress to be had because of it.
And just so everyone knows, if the newly created supercomputers are not actually performing jobs from inception to completion, it is no different than me firing one laser beam into another. I've just created a processor that's faster than those spoken of here, with the same pointless result; if it has no use in the real world. Is there even enough supporting architecture on this planet or above it to take advantage of what these new systems can actually do?