A supercomputer is the fastest type of computer. Supercomputers are very expensive and are employed for specialized applications that require large amounts of mathematical calculations. The chief difference between a supercomputer and a mainframe is that a supercomputer channels all its power into executing a few programs as fast as possible, whereas a mainframe uses its power to execute many programs concurrently.
Some Common Uses of Supercomputers
Supercomputers are used for highly calculation-intensive tasks such as problems involving quantum mechanical physics, weather forecasting, climate research, molecular modeling (computing the structures and properties of chemical compounds, biological macromolecules, polymers, and crystals), physical simulations (such as simulation of airplanes in wind tunnels, simulation of the detonation of nuclear weapons, and research into nuclear fusion), cryptanalysis, and many others. Some supercomputers have also been designed for very specific functions like cracking codes and playing chess; Deep Blue is a famous chess-playing supercomputer. Major universities, military agencies and scientific research laboratories depend on and make use of supercomputers very heavily.
Supercomputer computational power is rated in FLOPS (Floating Point Operations Per Second). The first commercially available supercomputers reached speeds of 10 to 100 million FLOPS. The next generation of supercomputers is predicted to break the petaflop level. This would represent computing power more than 1,000 times faster than a teraflop machine. A relatively old supercomputer such as the Cray C90 (built in the mid to late 1990s) has a processing speed of only 8 gigaflops. It can solve a problem, which takes a personal computer a few hours, in .002 seconds! From this, we can understand the vast development happening in the processing speed of a supercomputer.
The site www.top500.org is dedicated to providing information about the current 500 sites with the fastest supercomputers. Both the list and the content at this site is updated regularly, providing those interested with a wealth of information about the developments in supercomputing technology.