SA gallops into the future with Lengau, Africa’s fastest computer

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Neil Armstrong could say this in part because a primitive guidance computer allowed Apollo 11 to drop a landing craft on the moon.

That computer had 64 kilobytes of memory and 0.043 megahertz of computing capacity.

Instead of running software, its instructions were physically written on the computer’s memory by stitching ones and zeros with magnetic strands. It was revolutionary.

Now, your toaster uses more capacity when you press the magic button to turn stale bread into crispy happiness. The free USB sticks stacked in a jar on your shelf-of-all-things have more memory. Your Xbox has eight separate cores, each running at 1.75 gigahertz.

This is because computing power increases at a constant rate. Moore’s Law, the overlord of computing theory, says the number of transistors in a circuit will double every two years.

That has meant a processor race between Intel and AMD to conquer domestic computing by selling the fastest processors.

But the real race plays out in icy-cold laboratories across the globe.

The holy grail is to claim the title of fastest computer on earth for a few months.

South Africa is no different, with the Centre for High Performance Computing at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research running three models that have each been the fastest in Africa.

Each iteration has been named after a speedy animal: in 2007 iQudu (isiXhosa for kudu) took the mantle, followed by Tsessebe, an antelope.

The latest, Lengau (cheetah in Setswana) makes its predecessors look as slow as the dozing dots that Pac Man gobbles up in the early stages of that arcade game.

It runs 40 000 cores at a speed of one petaflop – one thousand trillion floating point operations per second. This is so fast that it cannot be compared to a conventional computer with its gigahertz speed. But it means it can do a quadrillion calculations per second.

The speedy animal-themed computers are here to help implement the National Development Plan, according to the science and technology department.

Thomas Auf der Heyde, the deputy director general for research development in the department, said at Lengau’s launch: “For our country to grow at the required rate, it needs to change gear by building capacity in the production and dissemination of knowledge.”

That translates to speeding up lots of research, such as work at the Square Kilometre Array, a radio telescope to be built in South Africa and Australia that will enable astronomers to probe the universe.

Lengau might not be the fastest computer on Earth – that accolade goes to the 33 petaflop Tianhe-2 at China’s National University of Defence Technology – but it is a heck of a lot faster than Apollo 11’s guidance computer that took humanity to the moon.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

Two dead in new ANC KwaZulu-Natal killings

A Mtubatuba councillor and a Hammarsdale ANC Youth League leader were shot yesterday near their homes

Inside Facebook’s big bet on Africa

New undersea cables will massively increase bandwidth to the continent

No back to school for teachers just yet

Last week the basic education minister was adamant that teachers will return to school on May 25, but some provinces say not all Covid-19 measures are in place to prevent its spread

Engineering slips out of gear at varsity

Walter Sisulu University wants to reprioritise R178-million that it stands to give back to treasury after failing to spend it

Press Releases

Coexisting with Covid-19: Saving lives and the economy in India

A staggered exit from the lockdown accompanied by stepped-up testing to cover every district is necessary for India right now

What Africa can learn from Cuba in combating the Covid-19 pandemic

Africa should abandon the neoliberal path to be able to deal with Covid-19 and other health system challenges likely to emerge in future

Road to recovery for the tourism sector: The South African perspective

The best-case scenario is that South Africa's tourism sector’s recovery will only begin in earnest towards the end of this year

Covid-19: Eased lockdown and rule of law Webinar

If you are arrested and fined in lockdown, you do get a criminal record if you pay the admission of guilt fine

Covid-19 and Frontline Workers

Who is caring for the healthcare workers? 'Working together is how we are going to get through this. It’s not just a marathon, it’s a relay'.

PPS webinar Part 2: Small business, big risk

The risks that businesses face and how they can be dealt with are something all business owners should be well acquainted with

Call for applications for the position of GCRO executive director

The Gauteng City-Region Observatory is seeking to appoint a high-calibre researcher and manager to be the executive director and to lead it

DriveRisk stays safe with high-tech thermal camera solution

Itec Evolve installed the screening device within a few days to help the driver behaviour company become compliant with health and safety regulations