What are supercomputers currently used for?

Many machines have garnered the title of “fastest supercomputer in the world” over the years. The U.S. Department of Energy’s ASCI White computer claimed the crown in 2000.
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Supercomputers conjure up the image of those massive, hulking, overheating machines that were the world's introduction to computing -- the ones that took up huge amounts of space to spit out computation after computation. You might be surprised to find out that even with the ubiquitous nature of the personal PC and network systems, supercomputers are still used in a variety of operations. In the next few pages, we'll give you the skinny on what supercomputers are and how they still function in several industrial and scientific areas.

First, a little background. What makes a supercomputer so extraordinary? Well, the definition is a bit hard to pin down. Essentially, a supercomputer is any computer that's one of the most powerful, fastest systems in the world at any given point in time. As technology progresses, supercomputers must up the ante as well.

For instance, the first supercomputer was the aptly named Colossus, housed in Britain. It was designed to read messages and crack the German code during the second World War, and it could read up to 5,000 characters a second. Sounds impressive, right? Not to denigrate the Colossus' hard work, but compare that to the NASA Columbia supercomputer that completes 42 and a half trillion operations per second. In other words, what used to be a supercomputer now could qualify as a satisfactory calculator, and what we currently call supercomputers are as advanced as any computer can get.

There are, however, a few things that make a computer branch into "super" territory. It will usually have more than one central processing unit (CPU), which allows the computer to do faster circuit switching and accomplish more tasks at once. (Because of this, a supercomputer will also have an enormous amount of storage so that it can access many tasks at a time.) It will also have the capability to do vector arithmetic, which means that it can calculate multiple lists of operations instead of just one at a time.

Now that we have a little background on supercomputers, let's check out what a few of them do.

Meet the Supercomputers

In 2003, Garry Kasparov once again tested his mettle against a chess supercomputer, Deep Junior. The contest ended in a 3-3 draw.
In 2003, Garry Kasparov once again tested his mettle against a chess supercomputer, Deep Junior. The contest ended in a 3-3 draw.
Mario Tama/News/Getty Images

As we said, supercomputers were originally developed for code cracking, as well as ballistics. They were designed to make an enormous amount of calculations at a time, which was a big improvement over, say, 20 mathematics graduate students in a room, hand-scratching operations.

In some ways, supercomputers are still used for those ends. In 2012, the National Nuclear Security Administration and Purdue University began using a network of supercomputers to simulate nuclear weapons capability. A whopping 100,000 machines are used for the testing [source: Appro].

But it's not just the military that's using supercomputers anymore. Whenever you check the weather app on your phone, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is using a supercomputer called the Weather and Climate Operational Supercomputing System to forecast weather, predict weather events, and track space and oceanic weather activity as well [source: IBM].

As of September 2012, the fastest computer in the world -- for now, anyway -- is IBM's Sequoia machine, which can operate 16.32 petaflops a second. That's 16,000 trillion operations, to you. It's used for nuclear weapon security and to make large-scale molecular dynamics calculations [source: Walt].

But supercomputers aren't just somber, intellectual machines. Some of them are used for fun and games – literally. Consider World of Warcraft, the wildly popular online game. If a million people are playing WoW at a time, graphics and speed are of utmost importance. Enter the supercomputers, used to make the endless calculations that help the game go global.

Speaking of games, we can't forget Deep Blue, the supercomputer that beat chess champion Garry Kasparov in a six-game match in 1997. And then there's Watson, the IBM supercomputer that famously beat Ken Jennings in an intense game of Jeopardy. Currently, Watson is being used by a health insurer to predict patient diagnoses and treatments [source: Feldman]. A real jack of all trades, that Watson.

So, yes: We're still benefiting from supercomputers. We're using them when we play war video games and in actual war. They're helping us predict if we need to carry an umbrella to work or if we need to undergo an EKG. And as the calculations become faster, there's little end to the possibility of how we'll use supercomputers in the future.

Author's Note

As much as we imagine the technological revolution happening on personal computers, smartphones and tablets, the truth is it's the supercomputers that will show us how far technology is going. The rapidly advancing processors that serve supercomputers are what slowly trickle down into the market -- but not before impacting huge swaths of our lives, through military defense, weather, science and health research, and even gaming. One need only observe how fast one supercomputer's dominance is displaced by another faster, more powerful version to understand how much our lives depend on the advancing technology.

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