The Dead Supercomputer Society

The Passing of a Golden Age?

From the construction of the first programmed computers until the mid 1990s, there was always room in the computer industry for someone with a clever, if sometimes challenging, idea on how to make a more powerful machine. Computing became strategic during the Second World War, and remained so during the Cold War that followed. High-performance computing is essential to any modern nuclear weapons program, and a computer technology "race" was a logical corollary to the arms race. While powerful computers are of great value to a number of other industrial sectors, such as petroleum, chemistry, medicine, aeronautical, automotive, and civil engineering, the role of governments, and particularly the national laboratories of the US government, as catalysts and incubators for innovative computing technologies can hardly be overstated. Private industry may buy more machines, but rarely do they risk buying those with single-digit serial numbers. The passing of Soviet communism and the end of the Cold War brought us a generally safer and more prosperous world, but it removed the raison d'etre for many merchants of performance-at-any-price.

Accompanying these geopolitical changes were some technological and economic trends that spelled trouble for specialized producers of high-end computers. Microprocessors began in the 1970s as devices whose main claim to fame was that it was possible to put a stored-program computer on a single piece of silicon. Competitive pressures, and the desire to generate sales by obsoleting last year's product, made for the doubling of microprocessor computing power every 18 months, Moore's celebrated "law". Along the way, microprocessor designers borrowed almost all the tricks that designers of mainframe and numerical supercomputers had used in the past: storage hierarchies, pipelining, multiple functional units, multiprocessing, out-of-order execution, branch prediction, SIMD processing, speculative and predicated execution. By the mid 1990s, research ideas were going directly from simulation to implementation in microprocessors destined for the desktops of the masses. Nevertheless, it must be noted that most of the gains in raw performance achieved by microprocessors in the preceding decade came, not from these advanced techniques of computer architecture, but from the simple speedup of processor clocks and quantitative increase in processor resources made possible by advances in semiconductor technology. By 1998, the CPU of a high-end Windows-based personal computer was running at a higher clock rate than the top-of-the-line Cray Research supercomputer of 1994.

It is thus hardly surprising that the policy of the US national laboratories has shifted from the acquisition of systems architected from the ground up to be supercomputers to the deployment of large ensembles of mass-produced microprocessor-based systems, with the ASC project as the flagship of this activity. As of this writing, it remains to be seen if these agglomerations will prove to be sufficiently stable and useable for production work, but the preliminary results have been at least satisfactory. The halcyon days of supercomputers based on exotic technology and innovative architecture may well be over.

These Web pages are an attempt to capture some of the spirit of adventure and invention of the golden age of supercomputing, and to distill some of the lessons, technical and economic, that were learned. I thank everyone who has contributed their reminiscences, images, and expertise, and I actively solicit those readers who wish to contribute content or commentary to do so.

Kevin D. Kissell
kevink @
February, 1998

Index of Dead Supercomputer Projects

Architectural Themes


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Copyright ©1998, 2009 Kevin D. Kissell, except as noted.

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