A supercomputer is a computer with a high level of performance as compared to a general-purpose computer. The performance of a supercomputer is commonly measured in floating-point operations per second instead of million instructions per second. Since 2017, there are supercomputers which can perform over 10¹⁷ FLOPS.

supercomputer is a computer with great speed and memory. This kind of computer can do jobs faster than any other computer of its generation. They are usually thousands of times faster than ordinary personal computers made at that time.

Since 2017, we have supercomputers that can carry out over a hundred quadrillion FLOPS, called petaFLOPS. It is also interesting to note that today, all of the world’s fastest 500 supercomputers run Linux-based operating systems. 

History of Supercomputers

The US, China, European Union, Taiwan and Japan are already in the race to create faster, more powerful and technologically superior supercomputers. 

The US’s first big strides in the field of supercomputing can perhaps be traced back to 1964 when the CDC 6600 was manufactured by Control Data Corporation (CDC). Designed by American electrical engineer and supercomputer architect Seymour Cray, it is generally considered to be the first successful supercomputer as it clocked a performance of up to three megaFLOPS. Cray used – in place of instead of germanium transistors – silicon ones that could run faster. Moreover, he tackled the overheating problem by incorporating refrigeration in the supercomputer design. The CDC 6600 was followed by the CDC 7600 in 1969. 

In 1976, four years after he left CDC, Cray came up with the 80 MHz Cray-1, which went on to become one of the most successful supercomputers ever with its performance clocking at an impressive 160 MFLOPS. Then came the Cray-2 that was delivered in 1985, which performed at 1.9 gigaFLOPS and was back then the world’s second fastest supercomputer after Moscow’s M-13. 

Types of Supercomputers

The two broad categories of supercomputers: general purpose supercomputers and special purpose supercomputers. 

General purpose supercomputers can be further divided into three subcategories: vector processing supercomputers, tightly connected cluster computers, and commodity computers. Vector processing supercomputers are ones that rely on vector or array processors. These processors are basically like a CPU that can perform mathematical operations on a large number of data elements rather quickly; so these processors are the opposite of scalar processors, which can only work on one element at a time. Common in the scientific sector of computing, vector processors formed the basis of most supercomputers in the 1980s and early ’90s but are not so popular now. That said, supercomputers today do have CPUs that incorporate some vector processing instructions. 

Cluster computers refers to groups of connected computers that work together as a unit. These could be director-based clusters, two-node clusters, multi-node clusters, and massively parallel clusters. A popular example would be the cluster with nodes running Linux OS and free software to implement the parallelism. Grid Engine by Sun Microsystems and Open SSI are also examples of such clusters that offer single-system image functionalities. 

Director-based clusters and parallel clusters are often used for high performance reasons, even as two-node clusters are used for fault-tolerance. Massively parallel clusters make for supercomputers where a huge number of processors simultaneously work to solve different parts of a single larger problem; they basically perform a set of coordinated computations in parallel. The first massively parallel computer was the 1970s ILLIAC IV; it had 64 processors with over 200 MFLOPS. 

Meanwhile, commodity clusters are basically a large number of commodity computers (standard-issue PCs) that are connected by high-bandwidth low-latency local area networks. 

Special purpose computers, on the other hand, comprises supercomputers that have been built with the explicit purpose of achieving a particular task/ goal. They typically use Application-Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs), which in turn offer better performance. Belle, Deep Blue and Hydra – all of whom have been built to play chess – as also Gravity Pipe for astrophysics, MDGRAPE-3 for protein structure computation molecular dynamics are a few notable examples of special-purpose supercomputers. 

Main features of a supercomputer

A vast number of processing units

Today’s supercomputers feature several hundreds of thousands, some up to a million, of processing units, CPUs or GPUs  depending on the architecture, working in unison using massively parallel processing. Often called capability computing, this is the one feature that sets supercomputers apart from the average computer. This particular feature rendered the old computer performance metric, processor speed, obsolete. The performance of a supercomputer is measured in Floating Point Operations Per Second, in short FLOPS. Mathematically speaking, floating-point operations are truly multiplications and divisions since they require significantly more computational power than additions and subtractions. As of late, HPC clusters are also boasting impressive scalability and processing power. 

An immense collection of RAM-type memory units

The sheer size of a supercomputer’s random-access memory (RAM) is only the first piece of the memory puzzle. Supercomputers’ RAM modules, although distributed across many nodes (one can think of a “node ” to be a super performant computer with many processing units or cores), can be treated as a single pool. The ability of the RAM modules to work in unison is achieved with specialized software, usually called middleware. In many cases, supercomputers feature several terabytes of RAM.  Another unique feature of the supercomputers’ memory, besides its size, is that it is addressable by all processing units, enhancing the ability of a supercomputer to solve large mathematical problems.

High-speed interconnect between nodes

The large number of nodes (think of nodes as a massive computer on a rack) that make up a supercomputer communicate via switches that operate at high speed. To ensure a high rate of data throughput, the nodes are usually connected in a non-blocking, fat-tree topology delivering not only up to 200Gb/s bandwidth between nodes but also in-network computing acceleration for communications frameworks (MPI). Specialized high-speed interconnect (bandwidth and latency) are quite the trademark of supercomputers and are critical to enabling effective use of their large number of CPUs and RAM.

High input/output and file systems speeds

High-speed computations that supercomputers feature is also complemented by equally powerful data writing and reading capability. This is achieved with parallel file systems such as Lustre or GPFS. Speaking of speed, another important supercomputer feature is quick read/write access to data. 

Custom software and specialized support

Most of us, when imagining a supercomputer, visualize only the machine. One of the most underrated “features” of a supercomputer is the staff that serves it. Troves of brilliant programmers and IT staff work tirelessly to devise innovative solutions that ensure the best computing performance and achieve high production levels from these complex systems.

Effective thermal management

Innovative ways of cooling the processing units and auxiliary components help supercomputers maintain high processing efficiency. Thermal management of supercomputers involves intricate and efficient liquid cooling systems, hot water cooling, and immersion cooling. Keeping the processors below their throttle temperatures ensures that all CPUs from all nodes are always available at full capacity. Their processors’ performance is at its peak if their core is not overheating due to crowding, improper ventilation, or ineffective cooling. 

Now that you know what features make a computer a supercomputer, learn what supercomputing is and what supercomputers are used for including weather modeling, pandemic spread, aerodynamics, protein denaturation, or global warming, making them extremely valuable, worth their weight in gold. 


Supercomputers play an important role in the field of computational science, and are used for a wide range of computationally intensive tasks in various fields, including quantum mechanics, weather forecasting, climate research, oil and gas exploration, molecular modeling (computing the structures and properties of …chemical compounds, biological macromolecules, polymers, and crystals), and physical simulations (such as simulations of the early moments of the universe, airplane and spacecraft aerodynamics, the detonation of nuclear weapons, and nuclear fusion). Throughout their history, they have been essential in the field of cryptanalysis.


The Advantages of a Supercomp

Supercomputers are thousands of times faster than your home PC.

Supercomputers are specialized devices built to perform extremely difficult calculations extremely quickly. They can be used to play chess, render high-quality computer graphics or accurately simulate weather systems. Supercomputers require special maintenance intended to keep them cool, and they consume prodigious amounts of electricity, but the advantages of a supercomputer are so great that they continue to be developed with ever-increasing capabilities.

Decreasing Processing Time

The primary advantage that supercomputers offer is decreased processing time. Computer speed is commonly measured in “floating point operations,” or “FLOPS.” Average home computers can perform up to a hundred billion of these operations per second, or 100 “gigaflops.” Supercomputers, however, are tens of thousands of times faster, meaning that calculations that would take your home computer hours or days can be solved by a supercomputer in a matter of seconds.


Solving New Problems

The sheer processing power of supercomputers means that they can be used to do things that ordinary computers simply couldn’t handle. For example, weather forecasting is highly complex and requires extremely sophisticated algorithms. Only supercomputers have the ability to perform these calculations in a timely fashion. Supercomputers have also permitted great strides in filmmaking and special effects. Pixar uses a supercomputer with more than 1,000 individual CPUs; even using this computer, each frame of their movies can take up to 90 hours to render.

Lowering Costs

By decreasing the amount of time needed to complete processing tasks, supercomputers can lower costs, saving money in the long run through increased efficiency. For this reason, some companies specialize in renting supercomputers to clients who don’t need a full-time computer but do need occasional bursts of processing power. Supercomputers can also lower costs by allowing engineers to create computer simulations that remove the need for expensive, high-precision physical models or testing environments.

Improving Safety

Beyond CGI and scientific applications, supercomputers can also help to make the world a safer place. Simulations or tests that would be difficult or extremely dangerous in the real world can be performed on a supercomputer instead. For example, nuclear weapons must be tested to make sure that they function. Without supercomputers, the testing process would have to involve detonating a nuclear bomb; computers allow engineers to obtain the same results without running the risks of an actual nuclear explosion.

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