Australia’s most powerful supercomputer – Raijin – has been officially launched. Imagine arming the population of Earth with calculators and setting them to work for 20 years. Raijin is so fast it could complete the same number of calculations in one hour!
The hardware in supercomputers isn’t as different from ordinary computers as you might think. Supercomputing is performed by processing units, known as nodes, similar to those found in a PC or laptop. One way a supercomputer is different is sheer size. While a newer high-end laptop tends to have four processing units, Raijin has almost 58 000!
Another difference is how all these nodes ‘talk’ to each other. Supercomputers, including Raijin, use software that allows all the nodes to work simultaneously. This is called parallel processing, and it’s a bit like multi-tasking. This is necessary for the supercomputer to perform complex calculations quickly.
The nodes take up a lot of space. While you can pick up a laptop and carry it around with you, Raijin isn’t going anywhere. It weighs 70 tonnes and sits in its own large room at the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI) high performance computing centre in Canberra. Raijin is also hot – the nodes generate so much heat that a network of water pipes is needed in the centre to prevent the supercomputer from overheating.
Raijin will mainly be used for research in earth and atmospheric sciences. For example, it will be used to model tsunami and flooding events, based on geographic and tectonic data. The calculations used to do this are so complex they need a supercomputer to be completed accurately.
Another area where Raijin will be used is climate science. It will be used to store all data from the Bureau of Meteorology, which can be used by climate scientists. One goal is to use Raijin to improve forecasts. Current models allow 10 day, one year or 100 year forecasts, with varying levels of accuracy. With Raijin’s help, it may be possible to develop more accurate forecasts for 10 year intervals.
Supercomputers such as Raijin greatly increase scientists’ capacity to do calculations and get a better understanding of how complex systems work. Because of this, supercomputers will continue to play an important role in a wide range of scientific fields.
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