A College Race for Supercomputers

Technology is constantly changing and continues to improve and grow at an alarmingly quick rate. While most companies and organizations wait to get their hands on the newest and fastest technology yet, some people aren’t all that crazy about the quickness of these machines. This is the case with a construction project headed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign project. The supercomputer, under construction at the university, is warehouse-sized and will come with a price tag of nearly half a billion dollars, according to an article posted in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The supercomputer is expected to be a distance runner capable of powering through intricate simulations of a tornado and being able to predict where storms will strike. However, it is not expected to make a Top 500 "fastest computer" list, and that doesn’t bother the designers one bit. The speed of the computer is not of particular importance to them, as they are rather trying to create a machine that can handle tasks such as grasping the intricacies of biological cells, the article states. In fact, speed is seemingly not the only worth of computers and machines these days, as more emphasis is being put on software and alternative designs. With federal reports calling for more balanced portfolios of U.S. supercomputing development and warning against an overemphasis on speed rankings, some are afraid that the arms race would be costly and take away from research aimed at developing new approaches for supercomputing, such as the University of Illinois’ creation, Blue Waters.

But rankings are hard to ignore and even President Obama referenced supercomputing speeds in the State of the Union address, noting that China actually had the world’s fastest computer. Being the first time a machine from China ranks first place, expectedly, policy makers are calling even more attention to the race for speed when it comes to advanced computers. This means the pressure is on for Blue Waters, the supercomputer, as it is backed by federal money. Touring the machine isn’t any easier; visitors coming to catch a glimpse of Blue Water must submit to retina and weight scans to ensure that these people aren’t bringing tag-alongs before entering the premises.

For researchers behind Blue Water, it’s still not clear to them how the supercomputer will do in the Top 500 list. It may depend heavily on whether or not China and Japan release faster machines around that same time. But to some, it doesn’t really matter because those lists are based on tests that figure out how quickly computers are able to solve a series of algebraic equations. Although new tests measure how fast data can be stored, retrieved and moved, they are still not as popular as the tests used to rank the Top 500 list. With researchers continuing to claim they need faster machines for research and to run complex computer models, it seems that the race for supercomputers and faster computers will continue.

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