A supercomputer is a computer at the frontline of current processing capacity, particularly speed of calculation.
Supercomputers are used for highly calculation-intensive tasks such as problems including quantum physics, weather forecasting, climate research, molecular modeling (computing the structures and properties of chemical compounds, biological macromolecules, polymers, and crystals), and physical simulations (such as simulation of airplanes in wind tunnels, simulation of the detonation of nuclear weapons, and research into nuclear fusion).
Supercomputers were introduced in the 1960s and were designed primarily by Seymour Cray at Control Data Corporation (CDC), which led the market into the 1970s until Cray left to form his own company, Cray Research. He then took over the supercomputer market with his new designs, holding the top spot in supercomputing for five years (1985–1990). In the 1980s a large number of smaller competitors entered the market, in parallel to the creation of the minicomputer market a decade earlier, but many of these disappeared in the mid-1990s "supercomputer market crash".
Today, supercomputers are typically one-of-a-kind custom designs produced by traditional companies such as Cray, IBM and Hewlett-Packard, who had purchased many of the 1980s companies to gain their experience. Currently, Japan's K computer, built by Fujitsu in Kobe, Japan is the fastest in the world. It is three times faster than previous one to hold that title, the Tianhe-1A supercomputer located in China.
The term supercomputer itself is rather fluid, and the speed of earlier "supercomputers" tends to become typical of future ordinary computers. CDC's early machines were simply very fast scalar processors, some ten times the speed of the fastest machines offered by other companies. In the 1970s most supercomputers were dedicated to running a vector processor, and many of the newer players developed their own such processors at a lower price to enter the market. The early and mid-1980s saw machines with a modest number of vector processors working in parallel to become the standard. Typical numbers of processors were in the range of four to sixteen. In the later 1980s and 1990s, attention turned from vector processors to massive parallel processing systems with thousands of "ordinary" CPUs, some being off the shelf units and others being custom designs (see Transputer by instance). Today, parallel designs are based on "off the shelf" server-class microprocessors, such as the PowerPC, Opteron, or Xeon, and coprocessors like NVIDIA Tesla GPGPUs, AMD GPUs, IBM Cell, FPGAs. Most modern supercomputers are now highly-tuned computer clusters using commodity processors combined with custom interconnects.
Relevant here is the distinction between capability computing and capacity computing, as defined by Graham et al. Capability computing is typically thought of as using the maximum computing power to solve a large problem in the shortest amount of time. Often a capability system is able to solve a problem of a size or complexity that no other computer can. Capacity computing in contrast is typically thought of as using efficient cost-effective computing power to solve somewhat large problems or many small problems or to prepare for a run on a capability system.
HistoryMain article: History of supercomputing
The history of supercomputing goes back to the 1960s when a series of computers at Control Data Corporation (CDC) were designed by Seymour Cray to use innovative designs and parallelism to achieve superior computational peak performance. The CDC 6600, released in 1964, is generally considered the first supercomputer.
Cray left CDC in 1972 to form his own company. Four years after leaving CDC, Cray delivered the 80 MHz Cray 1 in 1976, and it become one of the most successful supercomputers in history. The Cray-2 released in 1985 was an 8 processor liquid cooled computer and Fluorinert was pumped through it as it operated. It performed at 1.9 gigaflops and was the world's fastest until 1990.
While the supercomputers of the 1980s used only a few processors, in the 1990s, machines with thousands of processors began to appear both in the United States and in Japan, setting new computational performance records. Fujitsu's Numerical Wind Tunnel supercomputer used 166 vector processors to gain the top spot in 1994 with a peak speed of 1.7 gigaflops per processor. The Hitachi SR2201 obtained a peak performance of 600 gigaflops in 1996 by using 2048 processors connected via a fast three dimensional crossbar network. The Intel Paragon could have 1000 to 4000 Intel i860 processors in various configurations, and was ranked the fastest in the world in 1993. The Paragon was a MIMD machine which connected processors via a high speed two dimensional mesh, allowing processes to execute on separate nodes; communicating via the Message Passing Interface.
Current research using supercomputers
The IBM Blue Gene/P computer has been used to simulate a number of artificial neurons equivalent to approximately one percent of a human cerebral cortex, containing 1.6 billion neurons with approximately 9 trillion connections. The same research group also succeeded in using a supercomputer to simulate a number of artificial neurons equivalent to the entirety of a rat's brain.
Modern-day weather forecasting also relies on supercomputers. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses supercomputers to crunch hundreds of millions of observations to help make weather forecasts more accurate.
In 2011, the challenges and difficulties in pushing the envelope in supercomputing were underscored by IBM's abandonment of the Blue Waters petascale project.
This is a recent list of the computers which appeared at the top of the Top500 list, and the "Peak speed" is given as the "Rmax" rating. For more historical data see History of supercomputing.
Hardware and software design
Supercomputers using custom CPUs traditionally gained their speed over conventional computers through the use of innovative designs that allow them to perform many tasks in parallel, as well as complex detail engineering. They tend to be specialized for certain types of computation, usually numerical calculations, and perform poorly at more general computing tasks. Their memory hierarchy is very carefully designed to ensure the processor is kept fed with data and instructions at all times — in fact, much of the performance difference between slower computers and supercomputers is due to the memory hierarchy. Their I/O systems tend to be designed to support high bandwidth, with latency less of an issue, because supercomputers are not used for transaction processing.
As with all highly parallel systems, Amdahl's law applies, and supercomputer designs devote great effort to eliminating software serialization, and using hardware to address the remaining bottlenecks.
Energy consumption and heat managementSee also: Computer cooling and Green 500
A typical supercomputer consumes large amounts of electrical power, almost all of which is converted into heat, requiring cooling. For example, Tianhe-1A consumes 4.04 Megawatts of electricity. The cost to power and cool the system can be significant, e.g. 4MW at $0.10/KWh is $400 an hour or about $3.5 million per year.
Heat management is a major issue in complex electronic devices, and affects powerful computer systems in various ways. The thermal design power and CPU power dissipation issues in supercomputing surpass those of traditional computer cooling technologies. The supercomputing awards for green computing reflect this issue.
The packing of thousands of processors together inevitably generates significant amounts of heat density that need to be dealt with. The Cray 2 was liquid cooled, and used a Fluorinert "cooling waterfall" which was forced through the modules under pressure. However, the submerged liquid cooling approach was not practical for the multi-cabinet systems based on off-the-shelf processors, and in System X a special cooling system that combined air conditioning with liquid cooling was developed in conjunction with the Liebert company.
In the Blue Gene system IBM deliberately used low power processors to deal with heat density. On the other hand, the IBM Power 775, released in 2011, has closely packed elements that require water cooling. The IBM Aquasar system, on the other hand uses hot water cooling to achieve energy efficiency, the water being used to heat buildings as well.
The energy efficiency of computer systems is generally measured in terms of "FLOPS per Watt". In 2008 IBM's Roadrunner operated at 376 MFLOPS/Watt. In November 2010, the Blue Gene/Q reached 1684 MFLOPS/Watt. In June 2011 the top 2 spots on the Green 500 list were occupied by Blue Gene machines in New York (one achieving 2097 MFLOPS/W) with the DEGIMA cluster in Nagasaki placing third with 1375 MFLOPS/W.
Supercomputer challenges, technologiesAn IBM HS20 blade server
Information cannot move faster than the speed of light between two parts of a supercomputer. For this reason, a supercomputer that is many meters across must have latencies between its components measured at least in the tens of nanoseconds. Seymour Cray's supercomputer designs attempted to keep cable runs as short as possible for this reason, hence the cylindrical shape of his Cray range of computers. In modern supercomputers built of many conventional CPUs running in parallel, latencies of 1–5 microseconds to send a message between CPUs are typical.
Supercomputers consume and produce massive amo
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