Many of us are familiar with computers. You’re likely using one now to read this blog post as devices such as laptops, smartphones and tablets are essentially the same underlying computing technology. Supercomputers, on the other hand, are somewhat esoteric as they’re often thought of as hulking, costly, energy-sucking machines developed, by and large, for government institutions, research centers, and large firms.
Take for instance China’s Sunway TaihuLight, currently the world’s fastest supercomputer, according to Top500’s supercomputer rankings. It’s comprised of 41,000 chips (the processors alone weigh over 150 tons), cost about $270 million and has a power rating of 15,371 kW. On the plus side, however, it’s capable of performing quadrillions of calculations per second and can store up to 100 million books. And like other supercomputers, it’ll be used to tackle some of the most complex tasks in the fields of science such as weather forecasting and drug research.
When Supercomputers Were Invented
The notion of a supercomputer first arose in the 1960s when an electrical engineer named Seymour Cray, embarked on creating the world’s fastest computer. Cray, considered the “father of supercomputing,” had left his post at business computing giant Sperry-Rand to join the newly formed Control Data Corporation so that he can focus on developing scientific computers. The title of world’s fastest computer was held at the time by the IBM 7030 “Stretch,” one of the first to use transistors instead of vacuum tubes.
In 1964, Cray introduced the CDC 6600, which featured innovations such as switching out germanium transistors in favor of silicon and a Freon-based cooling system. More importantly, it ran at a speed of 40 MHz, executing roughly three million floating-point operations per second, which made it the fastest computer in the world. Often considered to be the world’s first supercomputer, the CDC 6600 was 10 times faster than most computers and three times faster than the IBM 7030 Stretch. The title was eventually relinquished in 1969 to its successor the CDC 7600.
Seymour Cray Goes Solo
In 1972, Cray left Control Data Corporation to form his own company, Cray Research. After some time raising seed capital and financing from investors, Cray debuted the Cray 1, which again raised the bar for computer performance by a wide margin. The new system ran at a clock speed of 80 MHz and performed 136 million floating-point operations per second (136 megaflops). Other unique features include a newer type of processor (vector processing) and a speed-optimized horseshoe-shaped design that minimized the length of the circuits. The Cray 1 was installed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1976.
The Cray X-MP, which was continually updated, served as the standard bearer until the long-anticipated launch of the Cray 2 in 1985. Like its predecessors, Cray’s latest and greatest took on the same horseshoe-shaped design and basic layout with integrated circuits stacked together on logic boards. This time, however, the components were crammed so tightly that the computer had to be immersed in a liquid cooling system to dissipate the heat. The Cray 2 came equipped with eight processors, with a “foreground processor” in charge of handling storage, memory and giving instructions to the “background processors,” which were tasked with the actual computation. Altogether, it packed a processing speed of 1.9 billion floating point operations per second (1.9 Gigaflops), two times faster than the Cray X-MP.
More Computer Designers Emerge
Needless to say, Cray and his designs ruled the early era of the supercomputer. But he wasn’t the only one advancing the field. The early ’80s also saw the emergence of massively parallel computers, powered by thousands of processors all working in tandem to smash though performance barriers. Some of the first multiprocessor systems were created by W. Daniel Hillis, who came up with the idea as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The goal at the time was to overcome to the speed limitations of having a CPU direct computations among the other processors by developing a decentralized network of processors that functioned similarly to the brain’s neural network. His implemented solution, introduced in 1985 as the Connection Machine or CM-1, featured 65,536 interconnected single-bit processors.
Intel Joins the Race
Now, where was Intel? The company that had established itself as the consumer market’s leading chipmaker didn’t really make a splash in the realm of supercomputing until towards the end of the century. This was because the technologies were altogether very different animals. Supercomputers, for instance, were designed to jam in as much processing power as possible while personal computers were all about squeezing efficiency from minimal cooling capabilities and limited energy supply. So in 1993 Intel engineers finally took the plunge by taking the bold approach of going massively parallel with the 3,680 processor Intel XP/S 140 Paragon, which by June of 1994 had climbed to the summit of the supercomputer rankings. It was the first massively parallel processor supercomputer to be indisputably the fastest system in the world.
After relinquishing the title in 1996 to the Hitachi SR2201, Intel came back that year with a design based on the Paragon called ASCI Red, which was comprised of more than 6,000 200MHz Pentium Pro processors. Despite moving away from vector processors in favor of off-the-shelf components, the ASCI Red gained the distinction of being the first computer to break the one trillion flops barrier (1 teraflops). By 1999, upgrades enabled it to surpass three trillion flops (3 teraflops). The ASCI Red was installed at Sandia National Laboratories and was used primarily to simulate nuclear explosions and assist in the maintenance of the country’s nuclear arsenal.
After Japan retook the supercomputing lead for a period with the 35.9 teraflops NEC Earth Simulator, IBM brought supercomputing to unprecedented heights starting in 2004 with the Blue Gene/L. That year, IBM debuted a prototype that just barely edged the Earth Simulator (36 teraflops). And by 2007, engineers would ramp up the hardware to push its processing capability to a peak of nearly 600 teraflops. Interestingly, the team was able to reach such speeds by going with the approach of using more chips that were relatively low power, but more energy efficient. In 2008, IBM broke ground again when it switched on the Roadrunner, the first supercomputer to exceed one quadrillion floating point operations per second (1 petaflops).