The very thought of supercomputers conjures up images of massive machines occupying huge spaces and churning out computations at incredible speeds. Even after the rise in miniaturisation that has produced high performing small PCs and laptops, supercomputers are an integral part of industrial and scientific establishments that require computation to be carried out quickly and at high speeds.
What is a supercomputer and what makes it so extraordinary? Basically, there is no definition of a supercomputer. The fastest computers at any given point of time are called supercomputers. With technological advancements, the benchmarks too keep shifting.
An example will better illustrate this point. The first designated supercomputer was the Colossus in Britain that could crack and read German coded messages during World War II and had the capacity to read 5,000 characters per second. Today, Columbia supercomputer at NASA can go through 42 and a half trillion computations per second, thereby reducing the status of Colossus to that of a calculator. This is how the goalposts of supercomputers keep shifting towards higher and higher performances.
What takes a computer from the one used in everyday routines to supercomputer levels? First, supercomputers have a number of central processing units (CPUs) that helps it to go through more tasks at a time with faster circuit switching. Next, they have enormous amounts of storage capacity, enabling them to reach unbelievable speeds. Finally, they have the capability to do vector arithmetic that is, calculating multiple computations instead of one at a time.
As said before, supercomputers were originally used for cracking enemy codes and ballistics. The trend exists today with supercomputers having large utilities in the military field. For instance, in 2012 National Nuclear Security Administration in collaboration with Purdue University started using a supercomputer that had a network of around 100,000 machines and can simulate nuclear war capability.
However, supercomputers are not limited to military uses only. The Weather and Climate Operational Supercomputing System is being used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to predict weather forecasts and events as well as monitor space and oceanic weather activity. Checking climatic conditions on a weather app in your smart phone will in all probability be aided by one such supercomputer.
Supercomputers have a lighter side to them that is not as serious as military applications or predicting the weather. They are used intensively for video games. Take one of the most popular online games The World of War Craft. Now if one million people around the globe are playing the game at a particular time, endless calculations have to be made with graphics and speed becoming very important.
In this context, supercomputer Deep Blue comes instantly to mind. It was this supercomputer that beat then World Chess Champion Gary Kasparov in 1997 in a six game match. Another example is the supercomputer Watson that beat Ken Jennings in a close game of Jeopardy. Its versatility is amply proved by the fact that Watson is currently being used by a health insurer to predict patient care, diagnoses and treatments.
As supercomputers become faster and faster, there is little scope of predicting in what ways they will be used in future.