How Much Is a Trillion?

April 12, 2010

Since the budget surpluses of the seemingly long ago Clinton administration have vanished, the government as managed by both major political parties has been on a spending spree. These folks have been throwing down trillions like rappers throw down Benjamins!
Speaking of Benjamins, how big is a pile of a trillion dollars made up of Benjamins? Click here for a quick look.
I did something yesterday that gave me a whole new view of how large of a number a trillion really is. I work with some big spreadsheets of data that I query from our database systems here at work. Using Excel 2007, I can analyze worksheets that are a million records long. So I needed to use the VLOOKUP function in Excel to grab a field of data in one worksheet of a million records and move it into another worksheet of a million records. I run these types of jobs on a server (not my desktop machine) and this process brought my server to its knees.
This particular VLOOKUP job involved a trillion comparisons. For each of the million rows in worksheet #1, it had to search a specified range of one million fields in spreadsheet #2, find the exact match, and bring a specific field of data back into spreadsheet #1. A million rows searching a million fields = 1,000,000 x 1,000,000. And a million times a million equals a trillion.
Now, my server is not a wimpy machine. It has Nehalem processors with 16 total processing cores running at 2.93 GHz. It doesn’t have a stupendous amount of RAM because Excel can only use just so much RAM. But many functions in Excel such as VLOOKUP can utilize all the processing cores you can throw at them.
So when I hit the return key at 5:12 PM yesterday to kick off this VLOOKUP, I noticed that it was taking a while. So I went to Task Manager and I saw that all 16 cores were maxed out at 100% utilization. All sixteen cores remained maxed out until 5:47 PM at which time the job finished successfully.
So, for all the techies out there, that’s your representation of how big a trillion really is. It takes 16 processing cores running at 2.93 GHz each maxed out for 35 straight minutes to run a VLOOKUP involving a trillion comparisons.

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