Hardware

Cheat Sheet: Supercomputing

Faster than a speeding bullet…

Supercomputing? Is that just a PC wearing a cape and its underpants over its keyboard?
No, a supercomputer is a computer which is considered to be at the frontline in terms of processing capacity and speed.

So what makes a computer super?
Well, it's all about speed, with the fastest computers being labelled as supercomputers. But the term supercomputing is rather fluid, with the supercomputers of today often becoming the common-or-garden computers of tomorrow.

At any given time, there are usually a few well-publicised supercomputers that operate at incredible speeds. IBM once again dominated the semi-annual supercomputer rankings, with its Blue Gene/L topping the supercomputer pops.

More on Blue Gene later but IBM is also currently working on a computer nicknamed 'Roadrunner' that will be capable of performing more than a quadrillion operations - or a petaflop - when it's fully operational.

You what…?

Bust through tech jargon with silicon.com's Cheat Sheets.

What does a supercomputer look like?
Although the design and layout can vary from supercomputer to supercomputer, most use clusters of computers to up their processing power and speed.

As of November 2007, the fastest machine in the supercomputer Top500 ranking was Blue Gene/L - which is a cluster of 65,536 computers, each with two processors that can process two data streams concurrently.

So is Blue Gene/L the most powerful computer in the world?
Yes and no. Blue Gene/L is the most powerful supercomputer in existence but the criminals behind the Storm Worm have created a botnet containing millions of PCs with a combined computing power greater than that of Blue Gene/L's.

So aren't supercomputers just a version of a mainframe computer or a botnet?
No, the main difference between these different pieces of hardware is a supercomputer channels all its power into executing a few programs as fast as possible, whereas a mainframe executes many programs concurrently and a botnet uses its power to churn out high numbers of spam and viruses or commit denial of service attacks.

All that hardware doesn't make supercomputers sound very eco-friendly…
True but the boffins are working on that too. A green supercomputer called Maxwell which is 10 times more energy efficient and up to 300 times faster than its traditional equivalents was unveiled in Edinburgh earlier this year.

Who uses them and what for?
A supercomputer is typically used for scientific and engineering applications, which must handle a very large database or do a great amount of computation (or both). One such application is using supercomputing technology to carry out research that could radically speed up the development of drugs. But supercomputers are also increasingly moving out of the laboratories and being used by businesses too.

Which businesses?
Formula One teams have been embracing supercomputing tech, with the AT&T Williams F1 team and the BMW-Sauber team both using separate supercomputers to improve the development of their aerodynamic tech.

IBM is also coming up with another supercomputer, called Blue Gene/P, which it claims will be capable of processing more than three petaflops. The US Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory is set to deploy the first Blue Gene/P later this year.

Microsoft has even developed a supercomputer-in-a-box with a relatively tiny price tag of $50,000.

So they usually cost big bucks then?
Oh yes, supercomputers usually cost millions of pounds to build and install - with the subsequent electricity bills to keep the computer cool and running being pretty pricey too.

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