What Do Supercomputers Do? Uses of Supercomputers and their Applications

Unlike our everyday devices, a supercomputer refers to a high-performance mainframe computer. It is a powerful, highly accurate machine known for processing massive sets of data and complex calculations at rapid speeds.

Supercomputers are high-performance mainframe systems that solve complex computations. They split tasks into multiple parts and work on them in parallel, as if there were many computers acting as one collective machine.

Supercomputers are used by scientists and engineers these days to test simulations that help predict climate changes and weather forecasts, explore cosmological evolution and discover new chemical compounds for pharmaceuticals. It was originally developed for nuclear weapon design and code cracking.

Supercomputers have the  ability to interlink multiple processors within one system. This allows it to split up a task and distribute it in parts, then execute the parts of the task concurrently, in a method known as parallel processing.

How Do Supercomputers work?

Supercomputers can perform multiple operations at once in parallel, thanks to a multitude of built-in processors. This high level of performance is measured by floating-point operations per second (FLOPS), a unit that indicates how many arithmetic problems a supercomputer can solve in a given timeframe.

An operation is split into smaller parts, where each piece is sent to a CPU to solve. These multi-core processors are located within a node, alongside a memory block. In collaboration, these individual units—as many as tens of thousands—communicate through inter-node channels called interconnects to enable concurrent computation. Interconnects also interact with I/O systems, which manage disk storage and networking.

How’s that different from regular old computers? Note that on your home computer, once you strike the ‘return’ key on a search engine query, that information is input into the computer’s system, stored, and then processed to produce an output value. In other words, one task is solved at a time.

This process works great for everyday applications, such as sending a text message or mapping a route via GPS. But for more data-intensive projects, like calculating a missile’s ballistic orbit or cryptanalysis, researchers rely on more sophisticated systems that can execute many tasks at once.

What Do Super Computers Do?

Supercomputing’s chief contribution to science has been its ability to simulate reality. This capability helps humans make better performance predictions and design better products in fields ranging from manufacturing and oil to pharmaceuticals and the military.

1. Weather Forecasting  And Climate Research

When you feed a supercomputer with numerical modeling data gathered via satellites, buoys, radar and weather balloons  field experts become better informed on how atmospheric conditions affect us.

They become better equipped to advise the public on weather-related topics, like whether you should bring a jacket and what to do in the event of a thunderstorm.

Derecho, a petascale supercomputer, is being used to explore the effects of solar, a method that would theoretically cool the planet by redirecting sunrays and how releasing aerosols influences rainfall patterns.

2. Genomic Sequencing

Genomic sequencing, a type of molecular modeling  is a tactic scientists use to get a closer look at a virus’s DNA sequence. This helps them diagnose diseases, develop tailor-made treatments and track viral mutations.

Originally, this time-intensive process took a team of researchers 13 years to complete. But with the help of supercomputers, complete DNA sequencing is now a matter of hours.

Most recently, researchers at Stanford University scored the Guinness World Records title for fastest genomic sequencing technique using a “mega-machine” method that runs a single patient’s genome across all 48 flow cells simultaneously.

3. Space Exploration

Supercomputers can take the massive amounts of data collected by a variety of sensor-laden devices, including satellites, probes, robots and telescopes, and use it to simulate outer space conditions on Earth.

These machines can create artificial environments that match patches of the universe and, with advanced generative algorithms, even reproduce them.

Over at NASA, a petascale supercomputer named Aitken is the latest addition to the Ames Research Center that is used to create high-resolution simulations in preparation for upcoming Artemis missions, which aim to establish a long-term human presence on the moon.

A better understanding of how aerodynamic loads will affect the launch vehicle, mobile launcher, tower structure and flame trench reduces risk and creates safer conditions.

4. Aviation Engineering

Supercomputing systems in aviation have been used to detect solar flares, predict turbulence and approximate aeroelasticity (how aerodynamic loads affect a plane) to build better aircrafts.

In fact, the world’s fastest supercomputer to date, Frontier, has been recruited by GE Aerospace to test open fan engine architecture designed for the next-generation of commercial aircraft, which could help reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 20 percent.

5. Nuclear Fusion Research

Two of the world’s highest-performing supercomputers, Frontier and Summit, will be creating simulations to predict energy loss and optimize performance in plasma.

The project’s objective, led by scientists at General Atomics, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of California, San Diego, is to help develop next-generation technology for fusion energy reactors.

Emulating energy generation processes of the sun, nuclear fusion is a candidate in the search for abundant, long-term energy resources free of carbon emissions and radioactive waste.

How Fast are Supercomputers?

Today’s highest-performing supercomputers are able to compute simulations in the time it would take a personal computer 500 years, according to the Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe.

Fastest Supercomputers In The World

The following supercomputers are ranked by Top500. Aproject co-founded by Dongarra that ranks the fastest non-distributed computer systems. This is based on their ability to solve a set of linear equations using a dense random matrix. It uses the LINPACK Benchmark, which estimates how fast a computer is likely to run one program or many.

1. Frontier

Operating out of Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee, Frontier is the world’s first recorded supercomputer to break the “exascale,” sustaining computational power of 1.1 exaFLOPS. In other words, it can solve a quintillion calculations per second.

Built out of 74 HPE Cray EX supercomputing cabinets, which weigh nearly 8,000 pounds each, it’s more powerful than the top seven supercomputers combined. According to the laboratory, it would take the entire planet’s population more than four years to solve what Frontier can solve in one second.

2. Fugaku

Fugaku debuted at 416 petaFLOPS,  a performance that won it the world title for two consecutive years  and, following a software upgrade in 2020, has since peaked at 442 petaFLOPS. It’s built with a Fujitsu A64FX microprocessor that has 158,976 nodes.

The petascale computer is named after an alternative name for Mount Fuji, and is located at the Riken Center for Computational Science in Kobe, Japan.

3. Lumi

A consortium of 10 European countries banded together to bring about Lumi, Europe’s fastest supercomputer. This 1,600-square-foot, 165-ton machine has a sustained computing power of 375 petaFLOPS, with peak performance at 550 petaFLOPS—a capacity comparable to 1.5 million laptops.

It’s also one of the most energy-efficient models to date. Located at CSC’s data center in Kajaani, Finland, Lumi is kept cool by natural climate conditions. It also runs entirely on carbon-free, hydro-electric energy while producing 20 percent of the surrounding district’s heating from its waste heat.

4. Summit

Summit was the world’s fastest computer when it debuted in 2018, and holds a current top speed of 200 petaFLOPS. The United States Department of Energy sponsored the project, operated by IBM, with a $325 million contract.

Using AI, material science and genomics, the 9,300-square-foot machine has been used to simulate earthquakes and extreme weather conditions and predict the lifespan of neutrinos. Like Frontier, Summit is hosted by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

5. Leonardo

Leonardo is a petascale supercomputer hosted by the CINECA data center based in Bologna, Italy.

The 2,000-square-foot system is split into three modules: the booster, data center and front-end and service modules, which run on an Atos BullSequana XH2000 computer with more than 13,800 Nvidia Ampere GPUs. At peak performance, processing speeds hit 250 petaFLOPS.

Difference Between General-Purpose Computers and Supercomputers

Processing power is the main difference that separates supercomputers from your average, everyday Macbook Pro. This can be credited to the multiple CPUs built into their architecture, which outnumber the sole CPU found in a general-purpose computer by tens of thousands.

In terms of speed, the typical performance of an everyday device, which is measured between one gigaFLOPS and tens of teraFLOPS, ranging from one billion to 10 trillion computations per second, pales in comparison to today’s 100-petascale machines, capable of solving 100 trillion computations per second.

The other big difference is size. A laptop slips easily into a tote bag. But scalable supercomputing machines weigh tons and have a square-footage in the thousands. They generate so much heat, which, in some cases, is repurposed to heat local towns, that they require a built-in cooling system to properly function.

Supercomputers and Artificial Intelligence

Supercomputers can train various AI models at quicker speeds while processing larger, more detailed data sets (as in this climate science research).

Plus, AI will actually lighten a supercomputer’s workload, as it uses lower precision calculations that are then cross-checked for accuracy. AI heavily relies on algorithms, which, over time, lets the data do the programming.

Paired together, AI and supercomputers have boosted the number of calculations per second of today’s fastest supercomputer by an interval of six.

This pairing has created an entirely new standard to measure performance, known as the HPL-MxP benchmark. It balances traditional hardware-based metrics with algorithmic computation.

Dongarra thinks supercomputers will shape the future of AI, though exactly how that will happen isn’t entirely foreseeable.

“To some extent, the computers that are being developed today will be used for applications that need artificial intelligence, deep learning and neuro-networking computations, Dongarra said. “It’s going to be a tool that aids scientists in understanding and solving some of the most challenging problems we have.”


In conclusion, supercomputers represent the peak of computing technology today. Their specialized high-performance designs enable breakthrough modeling, simulations and analysis in science, engineering and business.




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