The 80's supercomputer that's sitting in your lap

By now we're all used to the idea that each generation of CPU is faster and does more than the last, but just how fast? The computer you're probably using to read this blog on is faster than an 80's supercomputer.

By now we're all used to the idea that each generation of CPU is faster and does more than the last, but just how fast? The computer you're probably using to read this blog is faster than an 80's supercomputer.


Just this year, IBM achieved a major breakthrough in computing speed with the Roadrunner when it broke the Peta-FLOP barrier. Currently a near unbelievable speed, it's only a start. By the end of the next decade, scientists hope to have a supercomputer that's capable of exceeding the Exaflop barrier, or 1 quintillion floating operations per second.

The question, of course, is what does that compare to on the desktop? Based on where we are now, what can we expect to have on a typical desktop or laptop in twenty years? Perhaps an indication can be made by just how far we've come in the last twenty years.

Supercomputers 80's style

Twenty years ago as the 80s drew to a close, when you used the word "supercomputer" the company that came to mind wasn't IBM, it was Cray. For most of the decade, the Cray X-MP series dominated the computer field. Twenty years ago Cray introduced its newest and fastest computer. It was the successor to the X-MP line: the Cray Y-MP.

The Cray Y-MP could host up to eight 32-bit processors that were capable of 333 MegaFlops each. Combined, the Cray Y-MP could sustain a speed of over 2 GFlops. The CPUs ran at a blazing 167Mhz, upward of over 200Mhz, and could process both 24-bit and 32-bit instructions. The operating system of choice was a Cray-developed version of Unix.

Introduced just the next year, the fastest processor for a desktop you could buy was a 486DX/2 66. This was a processor that had a system bus of 33Mhz and an internal clock rate of 66Mhz. It was a 32-bit processor as well and could also run Unix.

As slow as a 486 may seem today, the speed difference between the 486 and the  Cray was vast. Check this chart from Netlib.org:

———————— ————————————- —————- ———— ——————- —-
Cray Y-MP C90 NOTE 001, C90/16256 —————- 240 67.16 9
Cray Y-MP C90 cc -O3 (4ns clock) —————- 250 60.39 45
AMI 80486DX2/66 NOTE 024, MS DOS 5.0 80486DX2 66.7 2.96 19
MAC Quadra 800 Think C 5.0.4


33.3 2.96 40
486DX2/66 EISA NOTE 025, IBM OS/2 2.0 80486DX2 66.7 2.87 36
486DX2/66 NOTE 026, SCO UNIX 3.2.2 80486DX2 66.7 0 32

Note that I tossed an 80's era Mac Quadra 800 running a Motorola 68040 in there for good measure. NetLibs uses Scalar MFlops as a measurement, which is slightly different than the Linmark-based speed ratings used by Top500.org, which tracks the fastest computers on the planet. It was, however, the only benchmark featuring older machines I could find. Even so, you can see the chasm between what was available on a top-rated desktop as opposed to a supercomputer. It's a factor of 30:1.

Fast forward twenty years

Today, that poor Cray Y-MP that would have set you back over $20 million would barely be able to run Windows Vista. Even a low-end laptop today has more power than that machine. For example, check out the Mobile CPU charts on Tom's Hardware Guide. The AMD Turion TL-59 CPU on my HP Pavillion runs at about 11GFlops. The Core 2 Duo found in a MacBook Pro will pull around 16GFlops.

The gap between supercomputers and desktops has widened beyond the 30:1 ratio of twenty years ago. Where you can pull about 25GFlops in a QuadCore desktop and up to 88Gflops on a Xeon QuadCore server, the Roadrunner, as mentioned above, will pull  1 Petaflop or 1,000,000 GFlops.

However, it's still conceivable that in twenty years we'll have Petaflop machines sitting in laptops or whatever device will ultimately be called the common PC. As it is, Intel's working on an 80-core CPU that will break the Teraflop barrier for PCs. This may ship by 2011 or 2012.

Just think how well Vista will run on that!

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