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COMPUTER SYSTEMS

Supercomputers: Not Just for Scientists Anymore
By: Terri Wells
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    2005-08-31

    Table of Contents:
  • Supercomputers: Not Just for Scientists Anymore
  • Modeling the Assembly Line
  • That’s Entertainment
  • Other Uses for Supercomputers

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    Supercomputers: Not Just for Scientists Anymore


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    It used to be that supercomputers occupied the rarefied space of scientists' laboratories and were only used for the most complex calculations in fields such as physics. Scientists still use supercomputers, but now so do manufacturers, movie studios, and even government agencies. Keep reading to take a look at how things have changed.

    When Seymour Cray built the world’s first supercomputer in the 1970s, he could hardly have imagined what the descendants of his creation would be doing some thirty years later. That first supercomputer found a home at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Today, scientists and laboratories still make heavy use of supercomputers, but these powerful number-crunching machines handle many other jobs as well, in the government and, surprisingly, the private sector.

    We can thank the immense improvements seen in computer and supercomputer price/performance as the reason for their expanded use. That first supercomputer in 1976 cost $8.8 million. It operated at a speed of 160 million floating-point operations per second (160 megaflops) and possessed an eight megabyte (1 million word) main memory. In June of this year, IBM previewed an off-the-shelf supercomputer capable of 87.3 billion floating point operations per second (87.7 gigaflops). Even a cheap PC today is capable of several gigaflops, beating Cray’s first supercomputer at a fraction of the price. In short, the average middle-class teenager today accesses more than a thousand times as much computing power in his or her home than the best scientists could access 30 years ago.

    It is true that science remains the most exciting area for supercomputers to prove their worth. Scientists are harnessing their computing power for projects that include modeling the evolution of the universe, the climate of the earth, and mapping all the neurons in the human brain. For more information on these projects, you can check out this article (http://www.devhardware.com/c/a/Computer-Systems/
    Millennium-Run-Simulating-the-Universe/
    ). Supercomputers also played a major role in the Human Genome Project, a 13-year-long international effort that succeeded in identifying all of the genes in human DNA and determining the sequences of its three billion chemical base pairs. Completed in 2003, the results of the project will keep medical researchers engaged for many years as they decipher the genes’ functions and devise possible treatments for genetic diseases. 

    But many businesses are using supercomputers today for more mundane functions. Suzy Tichenor, director of the High Performance Computing Initiative supported by the Council on Competitiveness, makes the case that this is only right. As she explained in an interview, “This is not an arcane, rarified technology that a few people in the government use for astrophysics and building bombs. High-performance computing really needs to become part of the fabric of the innovation infrastructure in the U.S.”

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