The short life and quick death of a supercomputer

Japan’s venerable supercomputer K went into retirement in August of 2019. The world’s first supercomputer to achieve more than 10 quadrillion computations per second ended operations after over 6 years of service. As its successor is still being developed and will not be online until 2021 or 2022, let’s take a look at “the K’s” history.

A magnet for controversy from its inception, in 2009 ruling lawmakers sought to cut spending and labeled the project “less urgent” on the national budget. Some said the idea of pursuing a first place ranking for computation was irresponsible given the worldwide economic crisis of the year before.

The opinion took hold and the project was frozen. Reaction from the scientific community was fierce with recent Nobel laureate, Ryoi Noyori, convincing the budget panel to rescind the decision. The project was eventually allowed to continue when the fiscal year 2010 commenced.

It took six years of development and a one billion dollar investment for “the K” to achieve full-scale operation in 2012, proving itself resourceful in various fields almost immediately. After a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the northeast coast of Japan’s Honshu island in 2011, “the K” was used to examine and recreate the effects in simulation to better predict and understand future earthquakes. Then, from medical research to semiconductor development to weather forecasting, “the K” became a bit of a national hero and standard of excellence with its use often referenced in articles to give a project clout.

Much of “the K” will be scrapped with that cost expected to reach a few hundred thousand dollars. A number of private companies have been contracted to develop its replacement – “Fugaku” – which is expected to have a computing capacity 100 times greater. The cost is projected to be just under that of its predecessor and has already been slated for projects relating to the development of new pharmaceuticals and an enhancement of current disaster protocols.
It will also be the fastest processor on the planet by a mile.