September 28 2022 12:51 PM E-paper Subscribe Sign in My Account Sign out

Supercomputers and mere mortals

supercomputer servers
(Photo: Envato Elements)
supercomputer servers

Jean-Claude Elias

The writer is a computer engineer and a classically trained pianist and guitarist. He has been regularly writing IT articles, reviewing music albums, and covering concerts for more than 30 years.

What does a computer that can perform 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 (18 zeroes, or one quintillion) operations per second mean to the home or office user of digital technology, or even to the average IT professional for that matter?اضافة اعلان

This landmark performance was achieved last June by Frontier, jointly built by AMD, HPE Cray, and Oak Ridge, recognized as being the fastest supercomputer in the world. Cray is the company known to have made the first supercomputer in 1976. It could do a “humble” 240 million calculations per second.

First there is the aura, the attraction of extreme numbers, whether large or small. It is always a thrill, for example, to hear that some distant stars are already dead, but were so far from us in the universe that we have not seen them yet because even travelling at the speed of light, their light takes years to reach us. Often when we see such stars, they just do not exist anymore.

Many feel the same emotion, the same attraction, when speaking of infinitesimal, subatomic and short-lived particles, such as quarks or bosons, whose life span is a hard to imagine: 10 to the power minus 18 of a second. All things that are infinitely larger or smaller than our regular dimensions fascinate us, even if we do not deal with them.

The performance of the supercomputers has the same effect on us, even if we cannot translate it in practical terms or visualize it in any way. It certainly is not going to enhance our Internet browsing experience, eject the paper from our printer any faster, or extend the life of our laptop computer battery. And yet, at some level and at some point in time, well beyond the thrill, the glitz, and the mind-titillation, there are tangible benefits.

Scientific research is the prime field where supercomputers are needed. There may be a limited number of places in the world where the machines can be put to good use and that can afford to operate them. These would be research centers and some top-tier universities.

Number crunching, as it is known in mathematics, is one of the main applications of supercomputers. All this often leads to useful, practical results that can then be applied and utilized in real life.

Examples abound, but here is one that dates back to 2014, and was reported by New Scientist: “Supercomputers make discoveries that scientists can’t. In May last year, a supercomputer in San Jose, California, read 100,000 research papers in 2 hours. It found completely new biology hidden in the data.”
There is little doubt, for instance, that sophisticated medical imaging equipment, like MRI and PET scanners, were made available and affordable to us thanks to ultrafast computer technology and advanced scientific research.
A weather forecast that extends beyond 15 days is only possible thanks to the power of the ultra-fast machines. Indeed, such a forecast requires the analysis of a quantity of data that only they can process in the short time that is available in such context.

Other fields of application are “brute force code breaking” (i.e., the deciphering and breaking of complex passwords), as well as 3D nuclear test simulations, as a digital and therefore safe substitute for conducting harmful real-life nuclear tests.

Experimentation in extreme fields sometimes ends up with inventions that we then find in everyday applications. This is not specific to computers, but can be found in other domains as well.

ABS brakes that are now a common feature in every vehicle on the street came from designs first made in Formula One car racing.

Sooner or later, the expensive techniques and designs in supercomputing will be found, albeit on a smaller scale, in personal computers and perhaps even in smartphones. Besides, AMD, mentioned above as one of the makers of the Frontier, is a major manufacturer of graphic cards for personal computers and laptops. There is no doubt that its participation in the Frontier project will give it additional experience and insight to design and make available to the wide public even more advanced graphics electronics.

However, supercomputers are extremely power hungry. Typically, they need about four megawatts to run – as much as 700,000 laptops! Environmentalists are the first to criticize them for such a gigantic carbon footprint. They ask if it makes sense to pollute the planet so much just to achieve fast calculations and eventually make scientific advancement and progress from time to time. This is debatable.

There is little doubt, for instance, that sophisticated medical imaging equipment, like MRI and PET scanners, were made available and affordable to us thanks to ultrafast computer technology and advanced scientific research.

If you are fascinated by what supercomputers can do and feel frustrated for not having one at home, take heart. Just look at the laptop on your desk: it is as powerful as the supercomputers of the 1990s. Therefore, in a way, you do own a supercomputer after all, even if a bit outdated.


Jean-Claude Elias is a computer engineer and a classically trained pianist and guitarist. He has been regularly writing IT articles, reviewing music albums, and covering concerts for more than 30 years.


Read more Opinion and Analysis
Jordan News