What Is A Supercomputer? Types, Features And Applications

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 12 October 2022 | Published 28 April 2022

Updated 12 October 2022

Published 28 April 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Supercomputers are powerful computers that have a specific use in scientific and engineering fields. Government agencies, research facilities, aerospace and automotive companies use supercomputers for weather forecasting, data mining, oil and gas exploration, molecular modelling, cryptanalysis and nuclear fusion research. If you have an interest in working in any of those industries, knowing about supercomputers can be beneficial for your career. In this article, we answer, “What is a supercomputer?”, explore its types, applications and performance, understand the difference between serial and parallel processing and discover the difference between supercomputers and mainframe computers.

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What Is A Supercomputer?

The answer to "What is a supercomputer?" is that it is a powerful computer with architecture, components and resources that provides massive computing power to the user. A supercomputer comprises a very large number of processor chips that can perform billions or trillions of computations per second. Such computers can perform innumerable tasks within a few seconds. Though a supercomputer cannot handle a lot of queries, it can solve complex problems that a standard computer might take a lot of time to solve. For many companies and industries, a supercomputer is a research machine.

The ability of a supercomputer to calculate and model particle interaction makes it an essential tool for research. A supercomputer can simulate all interactions, and scientists can use it to gather data for their research. The same technologies can help the industry explore countless new designs and understand which designs are worth testing. With a supercomputer, companies and government agencies are likely to spend a few hours performing a complex task rather than spending months doing the same task using a standard computer.

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History Of Supercomputers

Control Data Corporation (CDC) developed the first supercomputer in the 1960s. This supercomputer had only one CPU but had ten peripheral processors, each of which managed input and output and kept the CPU's queue full. The computer used more processors and was at least ten times faster when compared to other computers available. The size of the first computer was about the size of four filing cabinets. The CPU contained ten parallel functions, and each processor was responsible for dedicating different tasks, floating-point divide, floating-point add and Boolean logic.

What Is Supercomputing?

Supercomputing is a form of high-performance computing (HPC) that calculates using a supercomputer. It reduces the overall time to find a solution. The process of supercomputing helps a company with data analysis and problem-solving, which otherwise can be costly and time-consuming. Also, supercomputers often run artificial intelligence (AI) programs because they handle the workloads required for AI applications.

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Features Of Supercomputers

Some common features of a supercomputer are:

  • These types of computers can solve complicated calculations that other standard computers cannot.

  • A supercomputer allows multiple users to access supercomputing at the same time.

  • It has a very high storage capacity.

  • The computer can handle applications that require real-time processing.

  • These computers can support the high computation speed of CPUs.

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Types Of Supercomputers

Here are some details about the two types of supercomputers:

1. General-purpose supercomputers

Here are the different types of general-purpose supercomputers:

  • Tightly connected cluster computers: A cluster supercomputer is a group of tightly connected computers that work together as a single unit.

  • Commodity computers: Such computers are an array of commodity computers or standard PCs that connect to a low latency and high-bandwidth local area network.

  • Vector processing computers: A vector processing computer relies on vectors or array processors. These processors are like CPUs that can help perform mathematical operations on many data elements.

2. Special purpose supercomputers

A company creates a special-purpose supercomputer with the explicit purpose of achieving a particular goal or task. These special-purpose computers make use of Application-Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs) that offers much better performance than general-purpose supercomputers. The hardware architecture of such a computer solves a single problem. Such supercomputers find their application in brute-force codebreaking and astrophysics computation.

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Applications Of Supercomputers

Here are a few applications of a supercomputer:

  • Scientific research: In this field, scientists use a supercomputer to analyse solar systems, satellites and other nuclear research areas.

  • Data mining: Large corporations often use specialised computers to extract useful information from data storage warehouses or a cloud system. For instance, life insurance companies use supercomputers to reduce their actuarial risks.

  • Weather forecasting: The forecasting power of supercomputers helps a climatologist predict the likelihood of rain or snowfall in the neighbourhood. It can also predict the actual path of hurricanes and cyclones and their probability of striking.

  • Intelligence agencies: Government intelligence agencies use supercomputers to monitor communication between private citizens and fraudsters. These agencies primarily need the numerical processing power of supercomputers to encrypt cell phones, emails and satellite transmission.

  • Military and defence: Supercomputing provides military and defence departments with the ability to perform virtual testing of nuclear explosions and weapon ballistics.

  • Automobile: Using supercomputers, an automobile company can help people buy vehicles because before purchasing a vehicle, customers can test the simulation environment created by supercomputers.

  • Smog control system: Many scientists and climatologists use supercomputers in the laboratory for predicting fog and other pollution and smog levels in a particular region.

  • Entertainment industry: The movie industry uses supercomputers to create animations. Also, online gaming companies widely use supercomputers to develop animation games.

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What Is The Difference Between Serial And Parallel Processing?

Serial processing is similar to a grocery store checkout process. It is all about picking items from the conveyor belt, running them through the scanner and passing them to the customers. This speed of the entire process does not depend upon how quickly a customer picks items. It depends upon how fast the operator scans and processes the items. Such a process is slow because it processes one item at a time.

In comparison, parallel processing works by splitting problems into pieces and working on different pieces simultaneously. This process is more like splitting items at the grocery store between several friends. Each friend goes through a separate checkout process and completes the checkout faster. Due to these features, supercomputers use parallel processing.

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How Do Companies Measure The Performance Of A Supercomputer?

A company measures the performance of a supercomputer in floating-point operations per second (FLOPS) and not million instructions per second (MIPS). Petaflops measures the supercomputer's processing speed and is equivalent to a thousand trillion FLOPs. A 1-petaflop computer system can perform one quadrillion flops. Some supercomputers work up to a hundred quadrillion FLOPS, making such computers extremely useful for various complex operations. Also, since information moves quickly between different processors, companies can use these computers for real-time applications. In short, a supercomputer has over one million times more processing power than the fastest available laptop or desktop.

Supercomputers Vs. Mainframe Computers

Here are a few areas where a supercomputer differs from a mainframe computer:

Definition

Supercomputers are purpose-driven computers designed for engineers and scientists to solve scientific and mathematical problems. These computers solve problems that require excellent speed and a large amount of memory. A mainframe computer is a scalable and purpose-driven computer that helps an organisation store large databases and can simultaneously serve a large number of people.

Size and speed

The speed of a supercomputer is higher than a mainframe computer because it can execute millions or billions of instructions within a few seconds. Also, these are the largest computers systems available and have greater computing capacity compared to a mainframe computer. But, both offer parallel processing, which ensures a faster computation. The processing speed is in FLOPS, whereas the mainframe speed is in MIPS.

Purpose

Companies use a mainframe computer to handle large output, input and storage data. Such a mainframe computer involves simple calculations and computations with a large amount of data. Supercomputers help in complicated computation tasks, and they might focus on problems with speed or calculation limitations. They primarily focus on solving problems limited by reliability or input/output data.

Applications

Often, a mainframe computer works as central receiving and switching computers in a national or regional computer network. As it works as a database server, a mainframe computer can handle every input and output requirement of all terminals connected. Banks and financial institutions primarily use mainframe computers. Supercomputers are helpful in scientific research, mathematical modelling, weather prediction and astrophysics.

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Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are associated with Indeed.

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