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supercomputer

A supercomputer is a computer that performs at or near the currently highest operational rate for computers.  Traditionally, supercomputers have been used for scientific and engineering applications that must handle very large databases or do a great amount of computation (or both). Although advances like multi-core processors and GPGPUs (general-purpose graphics processing units) have enabled powerful machines for personal use (see: desktop supercomputer, GPU supercomputer), by definition, a supercomputer is exceptional in terms of performance.

At any given time, there are a few well-publicized supercomputers that operate at extremely high speeds relative to all other computers. The term is also sometimes applied to far slower (but still impressively fast) computers. The largest, most powerful supercomputers are really multiple computers that perform parallel processing. In general, there are two parallel processing approaches: symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) and massively parallel processing (MPP).

As of June 2016, the fastest supercomputer in the world was the Sunway TaihuLight, in the city of Wixu in China. A few statistics on TaihuLight:

  • 40,960 64-bit, RISC processors with 260 cores each.
  • Peak performance of 125 petaflops (quadrillion floating point operations per second).
  • 32GB DDR3 memory per compute node,  1.3 PB memory in total.
  • Linux-based Sunway Raise operating system (OS).

Notable supercomputers throughout history:

The first commercially successful supercomputer, the CDC (Control Data Corporation) 6600 was designed by Seymour Cray. Released in 1964, the CDC 6600 had a single CPU and cost $8 million — the equivalent of $60 million today. The CDC could handle three million floating point operations per second (flops).

Cray went on to found a supercomputer company under his name in 1972. Although the company has changed hands a number of times it is still in operation. In September 2008, Cray and Microsoft launched CX1, a $25,000 personal supercomputer aimed at markets such as  aerospace, automotive, academic, financial services and life sciences.

IBM has been a keen competitor. The company's Roadrunner, once the top-ranked supercomputer, was twice as fast as IBM's Blue Gene and six times as fast as any of other supercomputers at that time. IBM's Watson is famous for having adopted cognitive computing to beat champion Ken Jennings on Jeopardy!, a popular quiz show.

Top supercomputers of recent years:

Year

Supercomputer

Peak speed
  (Rmax)

Location

2016

Sunway TaihuLight

93.01 PFLOPS

Wuxi, China

2013

NUDT Tianhe-2

33.86 PFLOPS

Guangzhou, China

2012

Cray Titan

17.59 PFLOPS

Oak Ridge, U.S.

2012

IBM Sequoia

17.17 PFLOPS

Livermore, U.S.

2011

Fujitsu K computer

10.51 PFLOPS

Kobe, Japan

2010

Tianhe-IA

2.566 PFLOPS

Tianjin, China

2009

Cray Jaguar

1.759 PFLOPS

Oak Ridge, U.S.

2008

IBM Roadrunner

1.026 PFLOPS

Los Alamos, U.S.

1.105 PFLOPS

 

In the United States, some supercomputer centers are interconnected on an Internet backbone known as vBNS or NSFNet. This network is the foundation for an evolving network infrastructure known as the National Technology Grid. Internet2 is a university-led project that is part of this initiative.

At the lower end of supercomputing, clustering takes more of a build-it-yourself approach to supercomputing. The Beowulf Project offers guidance on how to put together a number of off-the-shelf personal computer processors, using Linux operating systems, and interconnecting the processors with Fast Ethernet. Applications must be written to manage the parallel processing.

This was last updated in June 2016

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