Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Teraflops and Genealogy

This past week or so, Apple introduced a new iMac desktop computer. Now, this might seem as common as leaves turning colors in the Fall (depending on where you live, of course) but one of the specifications for the new systems caught my eye. Apple is claiming that the new iMacs contain the new sixth-generation Itel Core processors and can be configured at up to 4.0 GHz with a quad-core i7 processor. This gives the computer up to 3.7 teraflops of graphics compute power. Now, if you wanted to spend a little bit (or a lot) more, you could buy a Mac Pro and get up to 7 teraflops of computing power.

What is a teraflop? Well, it is a long story. But here are some of the highlights. Back at the dawn of the personal computer age, I was involved as the owner of an Apple Dealership. One of things that fascinated me were the accounts of the first "super-computers." These machines were being built by companies such as Cray Computer Corporation and such. What is a supercomputer? Here is the Wikipedia definition:
A supercomputer is a computer with a high-level computational capacity compared to a general-purpose computer. Performance of a supercomputer is measured in floating point operations per second (FLOPS) instead of million instructions per second (MIPS). As of 2015, there are supercomputers which can perform up to quadrillions of FLOPS.[2]
Here is another quote that talks about some of the history of the Cray computers:
Cray left CDC in 1972 to form his own company, Cray Research.[15] Four years after leaving CDC, Cray delivered the 80 MHz Cray 1 in 1976, and it became one of the most successful supercomputers in history.[18][19] The Cray-2 released in 1985 was an 8 processor liquid cooled computer and Fluorinert was pumped through it as it operated. It performed at 1.9 gigaflops and was the world's fastest until 1990.[20]
Now some perspective. This is what I was reading about as a "supercomputer." Wait. With a little bit of definition and comparison you can understand what I am talking about. 

The Cray-2 operated at 1.9 gigaflops. Here is a chart comparing these number definitions:
  • Bit is either 1 or 0
  • Nibble is 4 bits
  • Byte is 8 bits
  • Kilobyte is 1,024 bytes
  • Megabyte is 1,048,576 bytes or 1,024 Kilobytes
  • Gigabyte is 1,073,741,824 bytes or 1,024 Megabytes
  • Terabyte is 1,099,511,627,776 or 1,024 Gigabytes
1 Terabyte of storage can hold 40 Blu-ray discs. I can buy an 8 Terabyte hard drive for about $252 from

Now think about it. The new iMac is over 2,000 times faster than the old Cray-2. The iMac costs about $3,500 fully configured and the Cray cost millions of dollars back in the 1980s. The new iMac can come with a 3 Tb internal hard drive. 

You can now have a supercomputer on your desktop. Oh, by the way, a 2.7GHz 12-core with 30MB of L3 cache, 64GB (4x16GB) of 1866MHz DDR3 ECC, 1TB PCIe-based flash storage, Dual AMD FirePro D700 GPUs with 6GB of GDDR5 VRAM each, Mac Pro costs about $10,000. 

What has this got to with genealogy? Well, all that computer power makes it a lot easier to work with very large files and graphics. If you are still at the hunt and peck stage of computer use, it will probably be meaningless, but if you are moving huge amounts of data, like I do every day, I will see a benefit. We deal in information and computers are tools. Any improvement in the tools helps us do our job. 

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