Graphic credit: ALEX BREUER (TUM)/CHRISTIAN PELTIES(LMU) FAST AND FURIOUS: a visualization of vibrations inside the Merapi volcano on the island of Java, computed with earthquake simulation software over more than three hours at petaflop speed

Cape Town - there are a lot of noughts in a petaflop: 10 000 000 000 000 000, which is 10 to the power of 15 to be precise, or one quadrillion flops.

A flop is computer language shorthand for Floating-point Operations Per Second, and is a measure of computer performance.

Petaflop is the level at which European scientists were operating recently when they set a new record on the Germany-based supercomputer, dubbed SuperMUC, during a three-hour virtual experiment to simulate the impact of earthquakes.

But their remarkable achievement pales into insignificance when compared to the supercomputing requirements that will be demanded by the giant Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project under construction in South Africa and Australia, with future components to be built in eight African partner countries as well.

SuperMUC is situated at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre in Garching near Munich, and it provides sustained computing power in the petaflop regime.

According to Wikipedia, SuperMUC was Europe’s second-fastest supercomputer and ranked sixth in the top 500 list of the most powerful supercomputers in November 2012.

Recently, geophysicists led by Dr Christian Pelties of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München and Professor Michael Bader at Technische Universität München achieved a new record on the SuperMUC while using SeisSol earthquake simulation software to investigate rupture processes and seismic waves beneath the Earth’s surface.

In order to simulate vibrations inside the geometrically-complex Merapi volcano on the island of Java, the supercomputer executed 1.09 petaflops and maintained this high performance level throughout the entire three-hour simulation that was run using all of SuperMUC’s 147 456 processor cores.

It achieved a peak performance of 1.42 petaflops, corresponding to 44.5 percent of SuperMUC’s theoretically available capacity.

Geophysicist Dr Christian Pelties was quoted as saying that, thanks to this extreme performance now achievable, they were able to run five times as many models or models that were five times as large, to achieve significantly more accurate results.

“Our simulations are thus inching ever closer to reality. This will allow us to better understand many fundamental mechanisms of earthquakes and hopefully be better prepared for future events.”

Bader said speeding up the simulation software by a factor of five was not only an important step for geophysical research – “we are, at the same time, preparing the applied methodologies and software packages for the next generation of supercomputers”.

It is these yet-to-be-developed supercomputers that will be required to handle the “big data” sets emanating from the SKA.

The behemoth radio telescope will require computer performance in the order of exaflops – an exaflop is 10 to the power of 18, or 1 000 times faster than a petaflop – in order to deal with the vast amount of raw data generated: estimated at enough to fill 15 million 64GB iPods every day. - Cape Argus


Big flops

yottaflop – 10 to the power of 24

zettaflop – 10 to the power of 21

exaflop – 10 to the power of 18

petaflop – 10 to the power of 15

teraflop – 10 to the power of 12

gigaflop – 10 to the power of nine

megaflop – 10 to the power of six

kiloflop – 10 the power of three