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What Makes a Computer Super?

June 25, 1989|CARLA LAZZARESCHI

Want to start a high-tech metaphysical debate? Ask two engineers what constitutes a supercomputer.

Many users define supercomputers as the fastest machines available on the market at any given time. Still others contend that there are qualitative differences that separate supercomputers from the rest of the pack.

Among these differences are price--supercomputers cost well over $1 million each--and how supercomputers process data. Traditional computers process digits or numbers sequentially, one-by-one, adding two numbers together, then multiplying the sum by another number, and so on.

Supercomputers, instead, use "vector processing," which allows the machine to perform a single calculation on an entire row or column, with just a single instruction. It's a far faster process and typically suited to large scientific problems. According to some accounts, problems that could take 24 hours to solve on a traditional minicomputer, such as a VAX3 from Digital Equipment Corp., could be completed in less than an hour on a Cray supercomputer.

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