What’s a Supercomputer?

What is Parallel Processing?

Parallel processing is the ability to carry out many tasks at the same time. Parallelism is everywhere—it’s how we speed things up. Think about roads, or farm equipment, for example. A highway with several lanes can move many more vehicles than a single-lane road. Farming tillers and combines work across several rows of crops at a time, much faster than if they worked on a single row.

Working together to accomplish a big task is a powerful idea. From ant colonies to human civilizations, coordinating large numbers of workers has enabled incredible feats to be accomplished. Similarly, computer scientists have figured out how to harness processors to work together effectively on a mathematical problem: they call such a system a parallel computer.

The speed produced by parallelism is the key to harnessing the number-crunching power needed to model the Earth system. Parallel computers tackle complex equations by divvying up the problem into smaller parts that can be solved simultaneously by many processors, saving time.

At the NWSC, our supercomputer is among the fastest in the world. It is dedicated to research about the Earth system. Just like personal electronics, such as digital cameras or cell phones, supercomputer technology improves quickly. We upgrade our equipment regularly to ensure the advancement of science.

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Inside the NWSC

Supercomputers are like brains, capable of doing many different things at once. Your brain does the equivalent of millions of calculations even for very simple tasks, like taking a drink of water. Your brain processes information and tells your body what to do: it sees where the cup is, tells your hand how far to reach, how tightly to grasp it and how to move it to your mouth. You might not even aware that your brain is doing all that work – unless you think about it!