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Having witnessed the steady shrinking of computers from room filling to the new smart phones that check your e-mail, browse the web, take pictures, make short movies, etc., oh and also can be used to call people, reading that the smartest, fastest supercomputers will eventually be down to the size of dice or cubes of sugar comes as no real surprise.
IBM scientists say the new approach will see many computer processors stacked on top of one another, cooling them with water flowing between each one. The aim is to reduce computers’ energy use, rather than just to shrink them.
Some 2% of the world’s total energy is consumed by building and running computer equipment.
Speaking at IBM’s Zurich labs, Dr Bruno Michel said future computer costs would hinge on green credentials rather than speed. Dr Michel and his team have already built a prototype to demonstrate the water-cooling principle. Called Aquasar, it occupies a rack larger than a refrigerator.
IBM estimates that Aquasar is almost 50% more energy-efficient than the world’s leading supercomputers. “In the past, computers were dominated by hardware costs – 50 years ago you could hold one transistor and it cost a dollar, or a franc,” Dr Michel told BBC News.
Now when the sums are done, he said, the cost of a transistor works out to 1/100th of the price of printing a single letter on a page. Now the cost of the building the next generation of supercomputers is not the problem, IBM says. The cost of running the machines is what concerns engineers.
“In the future, computers will be dominated by energy costs – to run a data centre will cost more than to build it,” said Dr Michel. The overwhelming cause of those energy costs is in cooling, because computing power generates heat as a side product.
“In the past, the Top 500 list (of fastest supercomputers worldwide) was the important one; computers were listed according to their performance.
“In the future, the ‘Green 500’ will be the important list, where computers are listed according to their efficiency.”
Until recently, the supercomputer at the top of that list could do about 770 million computational operations at a cost of one watt of power.
The Aquasar prototype clocked up nearly half again as much, at 1.1 billion operations. Now the task is to shrink it.
“We currently have built this Aquasar system that’s one rack full of processors. We plan that 10 to 15 years from now, we can collapse such a system in to one sugar cube – we’re going to have a supercomputer in a sugar cube.”