Technology in today’s society moves at an extremely rapid pace. Some of the most powerful machines on earth remain so only for a few hours because new machines are constantly being invented to replace old ones. Many people have ever heard of supercomputers, but very few can fully comprehend their processing power.
The average person most likely thinks of a supercomputer as a giant machine with tremendous amounts of processing power. In reality, supercomputers are much more than just a bunch of machines hooked together. Supercomputers have the ability to divvy work into loads for different numbers of processors based on how many processors are requested. This capability allows supercomputers to perform tasks from data storage to calculations, such as finding the digits of pi. Supercomputers are so useful, because while a normal CPU would take 1500 years to calculate the sixty billionth digit of pi, researchers at University of Newcastle have used their supercomputer to do it in just weeks. Since all computers use binary where numbers like 12 are actually “1100”, such a feat is unimaginable unless completed by the most powerful of processors.
One of the relatively new supercomputers in the United States is the Comet supercomputer located at the UCSD Supercomputer Center. Only those who work with it know its potential, as few other institutions around the globe have the opportunity to own such a state of-the-art machine. One of the best protected systems in the world, Comet houses information and processes commands for many different institutions. Several California Universities use Comet to store medical records, and Neuroscientists from all over America have access to Comet to run Neuron models as well.
Comet and other similar supercomputers differ from the average home computer because of their superior inter-machine communication capabilities. The numbers of nodes and cores, which is essentially how many computers (CPU’s) are being used to run a certain project, is different for every running model. Based on the number of nodes and cores used, models can be run faster or slower. Studies done by Gokul Swamy and Linette Pan in the SDSC Research Internship revealed the number of cores vs. speed to be a logarithmic function rather than a linear relationship as previously expected. In other words, increasing the number of computers running a model does not a have a direct linear relationship on speed of project completion. This relationship plays a huge role in the speed at which projects are completed using supercomputers, and helps explain why supercomputer processing abilities are at all time lows. Despite the slowed growth rates, supercomputers are still advancing at a steady rate and increasing in number every month.
Each supercomputer is so important, it has a team of computer scientists constantly monitoring the systems to ensure nothing breaks. In fact, UCSD SDSC has a facility that can withstands earthquakes by putting supercomputers like Comet on moving plates. All buildings housing supercomputers utilize water cooling to reduce energy spent on keeping the computers from overheating by instead using water to cool the floors and ceilings, leaving the building at room temperature. This method was revolutionized by the UCSD Supercomputer Center and have slowly been endorsed by facilities around the nation and beyond. In fact, these new techniques of keeping the supercomputers running are sometimes almost as complex as the supercomputers themselves.
Comet and other powerful supercomputers though universally beneficial, are currently unrealistic for the average person. However, new ways of making simpler supercomputers have arisen, including combining several Raspberry Pi’s, compact CPU’s, to create smaller supercomputers(also viewable at SDSC). In the modern age, computers are commonplace objects but with this new technology, future generations will have more processing power than we could ever imagine. The power accessible in just one machine is almost unimaginable, with future supercomputers hopefully being able to prevent car crashes and even predict natural disasters. Supercomputers like Comet are the future of technology and eventually all hospitals will be able to store records like Comet to provide easily accessible data for billions around the world.
Acknowledgements: Subha Sivagnanam and Amit Majumdar Co-PI at UCSD Supercomputer Center, and Gokul Swamy REHS Intern at Del Norte High School