So you want a top-five grade supercomputer, but you don't want to spend a lot of money? Time to call Apple. The 2200-processor cluster of dual-2GHz G5 PowerMacs installed this summer at Virginia Tech is now ranked as the third fastest supercomputer in the world, at 10.3 teraflops, after the 5180-processor Earth Simulator (35.9 teraflops) and the 8160-processor ASCI Q system (13.8 teraflops). Okay, nice, but the real kicker is that the so-called "Big Mac" cluster supercomputer cost just a smidge over $5 million dollars, compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars for #1 and #2.
[Tech aside: a teraflops translates as trillion floating-point operations per second, which is why it's grammatically correct to say "a teraflops," so don't send me email about it, okay?]
Now, not many of us have $5 million to toss around, even for the world's third-fastest supercomputer cluster. Fortunately, the notion of "grid computing" -- using distributed systems to emulate a higher-performance system -- is taking off, and Apple is apparently getting ready to jump that direction, too. The easier that distributed computing gets, the cheaper it gets, the more powerful it gets, the more ways there will be to take advantage of it to figure things out -- climate change, protein folding, etc. -- that can really make a difference.