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Super Computers Faster, More Powerful

China's Tianhe-2 is now the world's fastest supercomputer. Credit:
China's Tianhe-2 is now the world's fastest supercomputer. Credit:
Super Computers Faster, More Powerful
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Hello there, and welcome to As It Is. I’m Faith Lapidus in Washington.

Computer technology has revolutionized the world. It has changed the way people interact and how quickly they are able to connect with each other. Today we hear how super computers are getting smarter and faster.

We begin with a look at the most powerful super computer in the world. China’s Tianhe-2 super computer has again been rated the world's most powerful computer. It is the second time in 12 months that the Tianhe-2 has taken the number one spot on the Top500’s list of the most powerful super computers. Caty Weaver reports.

Super Computers Faster, More Powerful

Experts measured the super computer’s performance at 33.86 petaflops, or quadrillions of operations per second. China's National University of Defense Technology developed the super computer, which runs twice as fast as the number two-rated Titan super computer. It belongs to the United States government’s Oakridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Both Tianhe-2 and Titan are part of an ongoing race to make super computers faster and more powerful.

So what is a super computer?

A basic personal computer has one microchip at the center of its operations. This Central Processing Unit, or CPU, executes a set of commands contained in a predesigned program.

The first super computers had a few more CPUs. That number grew as microprocessors became cheaper and faster. Andrew Grimshaw, a computer science professor at the University of Virginia, explains.

"Today, super computers are all what we call parallel machines. Instead of one CPU - central processing unit - they have thousands and thousands. And in the case of the Chinese machine, depending on how you count, millions of these central processing units."

These parallel machines are made up of many individual computers called nodes. They are all positioned in one block. They use a lot of power, create a lot of heat and require huge cooling systems. They also use programs different from those used by ordinary computers.

Professor Grimshaw says anyone with enough resources can build a super computer to solve problems that require millions of mathematical calculations.

But that is not always necessary. A virtual super computer can be created by networking individual computers within a university campus or company. These machines then process data during down time, when no one is using them.

"Those are very easy to run on virtual super computers because each problem is independent of all the others and I can scatter these jobs out around the place. We run these all the time at UVA."

Professor Grimshaw says that until ten years ago, engineers worked on making computers faster. Since then, he says, they have worked to create more powerful parallel machines.

"It’s transforming science and engineering, and it’s going to continue to transform it in ways that I think most people don’t fully grasp how well we can model and simulate the world now."

I'm Caty Weaver.

And I’m Faith Lapidus. You are listening to As It Is from VOA Learning English.

Severe weather events affect communities in all parts of the world. Earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis, and tornados have caused billions of dollars in damage and killed hundreds of thousands of people. When Hurricane Sandy struck the United States in 2012, many people complained that weather reports leading up to the storm had not been correct. Now, scientists are looking to super computers to help improve weather predictions. June Simms has more.

NOAA Hopes Super Computers Will Improve Weather Predictions

Predicting the strength and movement of these huge storm systems is of crucial importance. Thanks to new super computers, meteorologists for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are getting better at predicting the weather as far as six days out.

a Corvette and truck flooded by the storm surge of Superstorm Sandy stand in a driveway in Lindenhurst, New York. (Reuters)
a Corvette and truck flooded by the storm surge of Superstorm Sandy stand in a driveway in Lindenhurst, New York. (Reuters)
Hurricane Sandy was one of the costliest storms in United States history. At the time, some people blamed meteorologists for not correctly predicting the path of the storm.

But weather forecasting is extremely difficult, says Ben Kyger. He is the director of central operations at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Prediction in College Park, Maryland.

You’ve got major patterns in the atmosphere, like the jet stream, but you’ve also got little eddies, little currents, little things happening all over the place. All these little changes are interacting with each other, continuously, all day long.”

Ben Kyger says oceans are another issue because they closely interact with the atmosphere and have a huge effect on storms.

NOAA has spent about $20 million on two new super computers in an effort to improve the dependability of its forecasts.

“These computers generate the initial model guidance that the whole forecast process depends on, for all the weather information that you see, with snowstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, how hot it’s going to be today -- all of your weather forecasts start with what comes off of these super computers.”

It takes a huge amount of computational power to examine data from weather satellites, ground stations and other sources. It then takes a lot of power to predict temperature, air pressure, humidity and wind speed.

But human brains and experience are still very important to the process.

Meteorologists at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction scan the same data that the super computers get before issuing a weather report.

They’re looking at lots of different models, that run off different computers and then they’re creating that five-day forecast. They use lots of scientific and subjective knowledge from doing it year after year.”

NOAA continues working to improve its weather forecasting abilities. Another upgrade of its weather-predicting super computers is planned for as early as 2015.

I’m June Simms.

That’s our show for today. I’m Faith Lapidus. VOA world news is coming up at the top of the hour, Universal Time.

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