What makes super computers super? Money

The first computer I ever got my hands on was a Commodore PET – which managed 0.06 million instructions per second (MIPS). (in our case it didn’t even manage that because on that day – the last day of school in July 1980 Mr Shutler, myself and various others were so excited at the prospect of having a real live computer we just hacked at it without a clue and never managed to get to say more than “syntax error”).

At that time the world’s biggest and best computer was the Cray 1 – which managed a massive 150 MIPS: about one-tenth of the maximum computing capacity of an iPhone 5.

What separated the Cray 1 from the PET? Money. The Cray, launched in 1976, cost $10,000,000, the PET – a year younger – $1,500. But for the money (rebased to constant 1997 prices) you got 6,600 instructions per dollar per second out of the Cray and 17,000 instruction per dollar per second out of the PET.

And the comparison does not just apply to these two. This graph maps MIPS per thousand dollars from the end of the 19th century to more less today –

MIPS per $000


But here is the simple MIPS plot:

Advance of the MIPS


Here we can see three, and possibly four, clear series: bottom left the slow advance of mechanical calculation, the from the 40s, to today, the big iron, consistently outperforming the post-1977 rise of the “micros”, and finally the start of a new series – the embedded consumer devices like set top boxes and mobile phones.

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