supercomputer, a state-of-the-art, extremely powerful computer capable of manipulating massive amounts of data in a relatively short time. Supercomputers are very expensive and are employed for specialized scientific and engineering applications that must handle very large databases or do a great amount of computation, among them meteorology, animated graphics, fluid dynamic calculations, nuclear energy research and weapon simulation, and petroleum exploration. There are two approaches to the design of supercomputers. One, called massively parallel processing (MPP), is to chain together thousands of commercially available microprocessors utilizing parallel processing techniques. A variant of this, called a Beowulf cluster, or cluster computing, employs large numbers of personal computers interconnected by a local area network and running programs written for parallel processing. The other approach, called vector processing, is to develop specialized hardware to solve complex calculations. This technique was employed (2002) in the Earth Simulator, a Japanese supercomputer with 640 nodes composed of 5104 specialized processors to execute 35.6 trillion mathematical operations per second; it is used to analyze earthquake and weather patterns and climate change, including global warming. Operating systems for supercomputers, formerly largely Unix-based, are now typically Linux-based.
Advances in supercomputing have regularly resulted in new supercomputers that significantly exceed the capabilities of those that are only a year older; by 2012 the fastest supercomputer was more than 250,000 times faster than the fastest in 1993 in terms of the number of calculations per second it could complete. Although calculation speed is the standard for measuring supercomputer power, it is not, however, an accurate indicator of everyday performance; most supercomputers are not fully utilized when running programs. Supercomputers can require significant amounts of electrical power, and many use water and refrigeration for cooling, but some are air-cooled and use no more power than the average home. In 2003 scientists at Virginia Tech assembled a relatively low-cost supercomputer using 1,100 dual-processor Apple Macintoshes; it was ranked at the time as the third fastest machine in the world.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.