One small search: Google equates modern search power to original Apollo missions

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Since the death of astronaut Neil Armstrong last month, many people across the world have been paying tribute - not only to the man himself, but also to the role he played in the first successful mission to land on the moon.

In keeping with this spirit, a recent blog post from Google has outlined the vast difference between the computing power that was available to the scientists involved in the early Apollo space missions during the late 1960s, and the processing which goes into each one of the billions of searches that its engine tackles every month in 2012.

It points out that the AGC (Apollo Guidance Computer) which was responsible for controlling various aspects of the mission, is roughly 100,000 times less powerful than a modern laptop, with its clock speed set at 40KHz.

So next time your cursing a slow load-up, just think about how scientists must’ve felt trying to monitor a three-strong crew in a tin can in space. Scary times.

Whilst the in-flight technology was advanced for the time, but outdated by our standards, the computing power to which NASA HQ had access in 1969 was at least a little better, with IBM mainframes giving it 250 times more processing potential than the AGC.

Five such installations were used, and had to be operated around the clock in order to carry out all of the calculations that were necessary to successfully execute missions.

Google's engineers had a look at the figures and worked out that searching for a single term on the site uses the same amount of computational power as the entire Apollo program.

That represents not just one flight, but essentially the entire scope of NASA activities over a period of 11 years, spanning a total of 17 space missions.

This fact is relatively mind-boggling, and difficult to digest. It certainly puts into perspective the complexity and power of modern search tools, and the underlying computing power which most of us take for granted.

It also shows that while advances in computing have resulted in major social and commercial changes over the past two decades, there is still near limitless potential for future advancements to make modern systems and search engines look positively archaic.

Google is keen to contextualise these facts in a positive light, since the hundred billion searches which pass through its sites every 30 days or so represent the democratisation of computing power, giving global access to resources that were previously impossible to offer.

A search may be one small step, but its growth is a giant leap for all of us.

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