Supercomputer: Cracking codes to rivaling the human brain

Posted on: Dec 05, 2014 by Xavier Vigouroux

Journey to become the world’s most powerful supercomputer

Supercomputing plays a vital role in many scientific fields and industries and is used to model and simulate complex phenomena. Europe is quickly becoming one of the front-runners in the extreme computing race, with major powers across the continent competing to develop the most powerful machines.

But before we reveal some of the projects made possible by supercomputers, let’s uncover the journey that these extraordinary machines have been on as they push the petaflop possibilities (one petaflop equates to processing one quadrillion (one followed by 15 zeroes) operations per second!) and showcase their nations’ technical prowess.

What is a supercomputer?

Supercomputers are made up of thousands of nodes which are tightly coupled together. Linking the nodes together into clusters makes supercomputers much more powerful than single machines, and means they can work on highly complex applications. These applications, for instance, simulate the climate, life sciences and even astrophysics, helping engineers to search for oil reserves deep under the earth’s surface and design planes that don’t fall out of the sky.

Where did supercomputers come from?

When you consider that today’s iPhone 6 would have been the most powerful machine on the planet in 1993, it’s amazing to consider how far technology has advanced in the past 20 years, and how an increase in power seems to correspond with a decrease in size! But, supercomputing certainly isn’t a new phrase.

In fact, the concept of needing heightened computer power dates back to World War II, when machines, or calculators as they were known in their earliest days, were being built by people like Alan Turing to decipher encrypted messages as depicted in the latest film ‘The Imitation Game’, and simulations were being used to design atomic weapons.

Atos - Cracking codes to rivalling the human brain: Journey to become the world’s most powerful supercomputerThe first machine to be labelled a supercomputer was the CDC 6600 from Control Data in 1966, which offered the fastest clock speed for its day, at 10 Mhz. Following on from this came the first real High-Performance Computing system, called the ILLIAC IV. Installed at the University of Illinois in the 1970s, the ILLIAC IV was for a time the largest and fastest computer in the world, with 64 processors. Since 1993, the most powerful supercomputers have been ranked on the TOP500 list, according to their LINPACK benchmark results. Currently, the fastest supercomputer on record is processing close to 34 quadrillion calculations per second, or 33.86 petaFLOPS.

As we look to address the latest challenges of science, industry and society, we’re starting to look to the next generation of supercomputers which will be required to boost innovation and competitiveness. In our next post, we’ll discuss how we’re looking to resolve this. with the Bull exascale program, a system that will be capable of performing more than one billion (one followed by 18 zeroes) operations a second!

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About Xavier Vigouroux

Director of the Center For Excellence in Parallel programming,, Distinguished Expert and member of the Scientific Community
Xavier Vigouroux, after a PhD from Ecole normale Superieure de Lyon in Distributed computing, worked for several major companies in different positions. He has now been working for Bull for 9 years. He led the HPC benchmarking team for the first five years, then in charge of the "Education and Research " market for HPC, he is now managing the "Center for Excellence in Parallel Programming".