A supercomputer is commonly used in high-performance systems because it can operate at the fastest possible rate. It comprises thousands of connected processors to accommodate users’ heavy computational needs.

A supercomputer is used in most scientific studies and engineering applications since these industries often work with high volumes of data and high-speed computational activities. It is an integral part of computation science, including weather forecasting, quantum mechanics, climate research, molecular modeling, and brain simulation projects.

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Read More about a Supercomputer

Ever wondered how a supercomputer works and more? Find out in the succeeding sections.

what is a supercomputer

How Does a Supercomputer Work?

Supercomputers are more than just fast or massive computers. Their functionality is far more advanced than general computers. Instead of serial-processing tasks and activities, supercomputers do parallel processing that allows them to do many things at once. Supercomputers perform parallel processing to address large task volumes.

Imagine you are a scientist who uses a general computer to process results and run tests. Upgrading your computer with a faster processing chip improves its performance. But its functionality remains limited, and so it’s still slower than you want it to be because a processor, no matter how advanced, can still only accomplish one task at a time. The best approach to lessen the load and speed things up is to use parallel processing. You can add more processors and divide tasks, so each is dedicated to working on a particular job.

Since the 1990s, significant advancements in supercomputers have been made. Most supercomputers now employ massive parallel processing, which uses thousands of processors for each task or project.

How Did Supercomputers Evolve?

Supercomputers have come a long way since their introduction in the 1960s. Here’s a quick look at their evolution.

  • Early days (1960s): Pioneered by Seymour Cray, these machines were custom-built with a few high-performance processors. The CDC 6600 (1964) is considered the first actual supercomputer.
  • Vector processing (1970s):  Supercomputers like the Cray-1 (1976) excelled at handling large datasets with vector processors that can perform many calculations simultaneously.
  • Parallel processing (1980s–1990s):  The focus shifted to using multiple processors working together. This era saw a rise in machines with thousands of processors.
  • Massively parallel processing (late 1990s onwards):  Supercomputers are now built using thousands or even millions of off-the-shelf processors like those found in personal computers (PCs). This allows for much higher performance, reaching into the petaflop (quadrillions of calculations per second) range.

With increasing power demands, there’s a growing focus on designing energy-efficient supercomputers.

What Are the Notable Supercomputers of Today?

The first supercomputer, CDC 6600, was released in 1964. It used one processor that performed 3 million calculations per second. At that time, it was considered impressive. Today, however, it is considered much slower than a regular iPhone.

Over the years, significant improvements paved the way for creating supercomputers that can process thousands of complex activities at once. Here are some of the fastest supercomputers in the world, according to the brain trust at TOP500.

Summit | U.S.

Summit is a product of IBM. It comprises Power 9 central processing units (CPUs) and NVIDIA Tesla V100 graphics processing units (GPUs). The Oak Ridge National Laboratory currently uses Summit to manage 148.6 thousand million million (1015) floating-point operations per second (petaflops) of computer performance. It has been used in energy, artificial intelligence (AI), human health, and other research.

Sierra | U.S.

Another IBM-developed system is Sierra. It was built for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s use. It ensures that the country’s nuclear weapons are safe for use.

Sunway TaihuLight | China

Sunway TaihuLight was developed by the National Research Center of Parallel Computer Engineering and Technology (NRCPC). It is presently stationed at the National Supercomputing Center in Wuxi, Jiangsu, China.

Tianhe-2A | China

Another Chinese supercomputer, Tianhe-2A or Milky Way-2A, was developed by the National University of Defense Technology and now sits at the National Supercomputer Center in Guangzhou, China. It’s seen as a means to achieve economic, commercial, and military advantages.

Frontera | U.S.

Frontera is located at the Texas Advanced Computing Center of the University of Texas. It is considered the eighth most powerful supercomputer in the world. It’s set to open new possibilities in science and engineering, as it provides the computational capability to tackle much larger and more complex research challenges across domains.

What Are the Types of Supercomputers?

Supercomputers can be classified into two broad categories—general-purpose and special-purpose. We differentiated the two below.

  • Special-purpose supercomputers: Designed for specific tasks or applications, such as weather forecasting or simulating nuclear explosions. They are typically more efficient than general-purpose supercomputers for their specific task but are less flexible.
  • General-purpose supercomputers: Designed to handle various tasks and can be programmed for various applications. General-purpose supercomputers can further be divided into three subcategories:
  • Vector processing supercomputers: Depend on vector or array processors that can simultaneously perform mathematical operations on many data elements. An example of an early vector processing supercomputer is the Cray-1.
  • Tightly coupled cluster computers: Consist of multiple processors or computers connected by a high-speed network, allowing them to work together on a single problem.
  • Commodity cluster computers: Use off-the-shelf components like the processors found in PCs but on a large scale. They are more affordable and easier to build than custom-designed supercomputers.

What Are the Features of Supercomputers?

Supercomputers boast of several key features that differentiate them from your everyday computer.

  • Massively parallel processing: Unlike a single CPU in a PC, supercomputers leverage thousands or millions of processors working together. This parallel processing power allows them to tackle problems by breaking them down into smaller chunks and solving them simultaneously.
  • Petaflop or exaflop speeds: Supercomputers operate at speeds measured in petaflops (quadrillions of operations per second) or even exaflops (quintillions of operations per second) in stark contrast to the gigahertz (billions of cycles per second) speeds of a typical PC.
  • Fast interconnects: To ensure efficient communication between numerous processors, supercomputers rely on high-speed internal networks. These connections enable the processors to share data and work collaboratively on complex tasks as a single powerful unit.
  • Advanced cooling systems: The immense processing power of supercomputers generates significant heat. They require sophisticated cooling systems, often using water or specialized coolants to prevent overheating and ensure stable operation.
  • Massive storage capacity: Supercomputers deal with enormous datasets. They employ high-speed storage solutions like solid-state drives (SSDs) and sophisticated data management techniques to store and access data during calculations rapidly.

Now that you know the answer to “What is a supercomputer?” you better understand where computing will take us next. Supercomputers will continue to evolve and surprise us with their immense capacity.

Key Takeaways