The top 10 supercomputers in the world, 20 years ago

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In 1995, the top-grossing film in the U.S. was Batman Forever. (Val Kilmer as Batman, Jim Carrey as the Riddler, Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face. Yeah.) The L.A. Rams were moving back to St. Louis, and Michael Jordan was moving back to the Bulls. Violence was rife in the Balkans. The O.J. trial happened.

It was a very different time, to be sure. But all that was nothing compared to how different the world of supercomputing was.

The Top500 list from June 1995 shows just how far the possibilities of silicon have come in the past 20 years. Performance figures are listed in gigaflops, rather than the teraflops of today, meaning that, for example, the 10th-place entrant in this week’s newly released list is more than 84,513 times faster than its two-decades-ago equivalent.

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#10: 1995 – Cray T3D-MC512-8, Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, 50.8 GFLOP/S

2015 – Vulcan, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 4,293,300 GFLOP/S

The Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center is still an active facility, though none of its three named systems – Sherlock, Blacklight and Anton – appear on the latest Top500 list. The last time it was there was 2006, with a machine dubbed Big Ben placing 256th. (The PSC’s AlphaServer SC45 took second place in 2001 with a speed of 7,266 gigaflops.)

#9: 1995 – Cray T3D-MC512-8, Los Alamos National Laboratory, 50.8 GFLOP/S

2015 – JUQUEEN, Forschungzentrum Juelich, 5,008,900 GFLOP/S

Yes, it’s the same machine twice, which demonstrates that supercomputers were less likely to be bespoke systems filling giant rooms of their own, and more likely to be something you just bought from Cray or Intel. JUQUEEN is more than 98,600 times as powerful as the old T3D-MC512-8, a 512-core device that appears to have been more or less contained to a pair of big cabinets.

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