When they first came to the public eye in the 1950s or so, computers were astronomically expensive room-sized behemoths. Over time, they developed into the familiar desktops and mobile devices of today.Yet, as powerful as our consumer computers have become, they can’t touch processing capabilities of a supercomputer.
The value here is in the speed of calculation. Your personal computer is a Toyota Corolla where a supercomputer is a top-of-the-line F1 racer. These machines can solve huge, complex problems that a standard computer couldn’t even touch, and they can do so very quickly.
They’re used for a wide variety of applications – forecasting the weather, solving complex problems in quantum physics, and even beating humans in chess. All of this is made possible by way of parallel processing – lots and lots of standalone processors working together at high speeds.
But, just like the old days, supercomputers are room-sized and expensive.
This is changing, and it’s changing right now.
For instance, a company called Adapteva has developed the Parallella platform, a credit card-sized computer that quite literally brings the parallel processing capabilities of a supercomputer to your living room. An Intel i750, a fairly common and robust processor, pushes 7 gigaflops, or 7 billion calculations per second. The Parallela, however, can run up to 90 gigaflops and it only costs $100.
While this doesn’t even begin to approach the speed of other parallel processing-based computers (the fastest supercomputers today run at over 10,000,000 gigaflops), this still blows away the average home computer all while fitting in the palm of your hand. And since it runs Ubuntu Linux, a popular version of the famous open source operating system, it’s perfectly applicable for anything you would use your home computer for. But it does these tasks much more quickly.
For those who want the full, unmitigated power of a supercomputer, a company called Cycle Computing will essentially lease you time on such a machine. After creating an account and paying for computing time, you have access to an Amazon-powered supercomputer right from your own desktop. The calculations take place in a server farm somewhere else – all you see (and all you need) are the results.
The applications here are extremely technical – a software package called GROMACS will let you “simulate the Newtonian equations of motion for systems with hundreds to millions of particles.” Do you work in genetics? You can make use of the Basic Local Alignment Search Tool, or BLAST, to compare “primary biological sequence information.” Very specific applications for a very powerful technology.
Moore’s Law is a famous “rule” of computer science which states that processing power will double every 1.5-2 years. It’s held true for over 50 years, but the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors predicts that we’ll start to see some diminishing returns on processing power at the end of this year. For the law to keep holding sway, we need to see the widespread application of a new technology, and Andreas Olafsson, founder of Adapteva, says that parallel processing is what we’ve been waiting for.
How long do you think it will be until your home PC is as fast as Yellowstone?
And, what about your mobile phone? With cloud computing and mobile access, we could access the super-computing power over the cloud on our personal phones.
If we keep developing technology at the rate we are, we doubt any of this will take very long at all.
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