How super are supercomputers?

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What are supercomputers? How important are they and how similar are they to our personal computers? Weronika Filinger is an HPC Application Developer at the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre (EPCC) at the University of Edinburgh, and she was involved in creating the content of a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on Supercomputing or High Performance Computing (HPC).  We chatted with her to find out more about it.

What are supercomputers and who uses them?

Supercomputers are really big machines consisting of millions of CPU cores (processing units), that are used to advance science in fields where theoretical or experimental studies are either not possible or not sufficient. For example, without supercomputers and their ability to perform one quadrillion floating point operations per second (1015 FLOPs), it would be impossible to study what happens across the universe, to look deep inside individual atoms or to predict how the weather or climate changes. They are used in a variety of disciplines, such as Physics, Biology, Medicine, Economics, Social Sciences and many more.

How are supercomputers related to home/office based computers?

That’s something you will definitely learn through our course! It’s a very interesting point, because they are actually very similar. After all, they are mainly made of the same components – supercomputers are built from thousands of standard CPUs connected together. So in this sense, there is no ‘super-technology’ that is used to make supercomputers. People ask us ‘What is so super about supercomputers?’; Not much – apart from the fact that they are super-big and cleverly constructed. They are definitely less complicated that most people think.

Where are the supercomputers located and how can somebody get access to them?

There are different levels to the structure of the hierarchy of the supercomputer world, which are called tiers. Tier-0 refers to international supercomputers, which are usually very big and available to people from different countries. Then, there are national supercomputers, called Tier-1, like ARCHER. Going down the hierarchy tree they get smaller and more local, so a Tier-3 machine would probably consist of a few hundred to a couple of thousands of cores and would be hosted by a local university.  If someone is in academia, it should be fairly easy to do preliminary research on how they can use supercomputers for their research. Then, they then can apply for grants to buy the actual access time for doing their research. If someone is not part of academia, then they can buy access time to use supercomputers directly or hire someone to do this for them, but they need money and expertise. You can find the costs on the EPCC website.

Who decided to create the MOOC about Supercomputers and why?

The main person who is responsible for the creation of this course is Dr David Henty, who is responsible for HPC training at EPCC, including the MSc programme. Another person who supported the course with video production is EPCC’s Manos Farsarakis, and the fourth person involved in the development of the course content was Zheng Meyer-Zhao, who works at SURFsara in the Netherlands (an organisation for ICT in Dutch education). We wanted to create something accessible to many people, something that would be interesting but at the same time relatively easy to understand. Despite people’s interest in technology, not many people understand what supercomputing, or even computer simulations are about. Through the course content and the interactions with learners, we hoped to clarify some of the common misunderstandings people may have. Really, supercomputers are there to make our life easier, for example by predicting tomorrow’s weather, designing a new medicine or testing a new car model.The 5-week course covers a lot of material: what supercomputers are and made of, short introduction to their history, hardware and comparison to personal computers, computational science, case studies on supercomputers and their future.The course does not have any prerequisites, but you need to be interested as a lot of material is covered and following the course until the end is a big commitment. The next session starts on the 28th of August and you can find it online at

This article was written by Athina Frantzana and edited by Bonnie Nicholson.

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