What Are TeraFLOPS and Why Do They Matter?

A Beginner‘s Guide to Understanding This Computing Benchmark

Imagine you needed to perform a complex math calculation by hand, say multiplying two large numbers together. How long would it take you? Maybe a few seconds if you‘re good at math. Now imagine you had a calculator that could do that exact same multiplication near-instantaneously with the press of a button. That speed and raw computing muscle is what teraflops represent in the world of computer hardware.

In this beginner‘s guide, we‘ll demystify teraflops step-by-step so you can understand this common benchmark for modern computing power.

What Does "Teraflops" Mean?

The term "teraflops" breaks down into two parts:

Terra – This prefix means "trillion" in the metric system, the same way mega means million or giga means billion.

FLOPS – Short for "floating point operations per second." This measures the number of complex math calculations a computer can perform each second.

So teraflops refers to a computer doing one trillion floating point operations per second. That‘s a massive amount of number crunching! For context, that‘s equivalent to a computer doing 100 complex calculations every nanosecond non-stop. Pretty impressive stuff.

And computers able to hit benchmarks in the teraflops range require incredibly advanced hardware under the hood, from state-of-the-art consumer graphics cards to supercomputers used for scientific research.

What Is a "Floating Point Operation"?

Now you might be wondering, what exactly constitutes a floating point operation that teraflops is measuring? Let‘s break this down…

In computer math, a floating point operation includes anything from simple addition and subtraction to exponential or trigonometric functions. But what makes them "floating point" is they allow decimal points to float to different places within a number as needed to maintain precision.

For example, the numbers 10.5 and 0.105 are both written in floating point representation. The placement of the decimal allows for more accuracy when dealing with very small or very large numbers.

This floating point format is crucial because it prevents rounding errors. So your computer can precisely differentiate between numbers like 3.141 and 3.142. That level of flawless accuracy is critical for many scientific and engineering calculations that supercomputers are built to crunch through.

The "operations" part then refers to the amount of calculations done in one second. So teraflops measures total computing power through this floating point calculation lens.

Teraflops in Graphics Cards and Gaming Hardware

While originally used to benchmark supercomputers, teraflops has become a common performance metric in the gaming and graphics industry as well.

That‘s because rendering advanced 3D environments requires insane numbers of simultaneous floating point operations. So the teraflops measurement gives a quick snapshot of how much graphical processing muscle a graphics card or gaming console is packing.

For example, the recently released Nvidia RTX 4090 GPU achieves an incredible 95 teraflops of power. Compare that to the Xbox Series X at 12 teraflops and Playstation 5 at 10 teraflops. This massive difference shows how far advanced dedicated PC graphics cards are.

What About Petaflops, Exaflops, and Beyond?

As hardware continues advancing at a swift pace, even teraflops benchmarks are already becoming outdated for the true computing titans processing well into the petaflops (quadrillions of calculations per second) and exaflops (quintillions per second) range.

In fact, Japan‘s Fugaku supercomputer holds the current exaflops computing crown according to official rankings…and even it is already aging by industry standards!

So while teraflops remains a convenient shorthand for incredible processing capacity, the absolutely bleeding edge platforms are operating several orders of magnitude above that threshold and redefining what computationally intense applications are possible.

The Next Time You See "TeraFLOPS"…

Hopefully this beginner‘s guide shed some light demystifying this tech benchmark that gets thrown around so much these days when discussing heavy duty computing hardware.

The key thing to remember is teraflops provides a standardized way to compare the mathematical computation muscle across anything from mobile chips to advanced supercomputers. So next time you see those tech specs, you‘ll know precisely what they mean!