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What is a supercomputer? You probably have a piece of one in your pocket right now...

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What is a supercomputer? You probably have a piece of one in your pocket right now...

WATCH  | "They estimated [it] would have taken a little bit over a year to solve on their desktop in their office. By utilizing the supercomputer... we were able to run that thing in four hours."

And you thought your new computer was fast...


Every year, the types of PCs we use for surfing the web and playing games get faster and more capable. But would you believe that speedy new MacBook Pro you just bought is still thousands of times less powerful than the kind of computer you’d need to solve certain physics problems or predict the path of a hurricane?

For research computing jobs like those, or ones that would have you, say, mapping out a vast model of a human genome, you need a "supercomputer."

From months to hours


"So we had a physics problem in effective Hamiltonian physics," Jeff Pummill, a director at University of Arkansas's High Performance Computing Center, told Circa. "They estimated [it] would have taken a little bit over a year to solve on their desktop in their office.

"By utilizing the supercomputer at that time, we were able to run that thing in four hours."

We've got a user base of nearly 300 researchers that use the systems. It's somewhat uncommon to find a product that hasn't been touched in some way by supercomputing.
Jeff Pummill, University of Arkansas

The computing power found in today's supercomputers can turn lengthy, high-processing research and design projects into manageable tasks, sometimes shaving months off of computing time.

What makes a computer super?

Inside most modern supercomputers, you'll find the same standard-PC CPU cores and RAM memory -- but in opulent quantities.

Between its two supercomputers, the University of Arkansas runs about 13,000 compute cores -- the CPU power of about 3,200 MacBook Pros -- all at once.

"Individually, it’s just a bunch of PCs. But when you tie them together with a high-speed network... you allow the computers to work as one entity," Pummill explained.

Razor supercomputer
(Circa)

A MacBook Pro has four processing cores and typically 16 GB of RAM. The University of Arkansas Razor supercomputer has more than 4,000 processing cores and 8.6 TB of RAM.

Supercomputer network
(Circa)

The supercomputers at University of Arkansas communicate via a 40 gigabit network, which is about 40x faster than home WiFi.

The fastest supercomputer in the world

Pummill says his university's supercomputers, power-wise, are good examples of what you'd find at most research schools in the country. 

The fastest supercomputer in the world, China’s Sunway TaihuLight, is a great deal more powerful -- it has more than 10 million processing cores.

Your phone is a supercomputer?

Even though it turns out that the "Pro" laptop you just bought is woefully inadequate compared to even the most modest of supercomputers today, Pummill told Circa that the smartphone in your pocket is packing supercomputer-rate power. Well, first-generation-supercomputer power, that is.

"It’s interesting to think that the first Cray-1 supercomputer is enormously eclipsed now by your cell phone," he explained.

Progress!

Someone flashed a powerful laser at Houston Texans players during Monday's NFL game

WATCH  | For the news you need, check out our 60 Second Circa.

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