Supercomputing had its heyday in the 1980s. The field attracted many of the best minds in computer science, as start-ups and established companies vied for the prestige of creating the fastest computer in the world. Interest in these high-powered beasts waned in the 1990s, as computing talent was drawn to the internet. This has been changing in recent years. The ability to build powerful computers cheaply, combined with growing commercial demand for high-end computing power, is creating a renaissance in the field of supercomputing.

These days, it is not necessary to design and build a supercomputer from scratch. Existing commercial components can be cheaply bolted together to create a very powerful system. Last year, a group at America’s National Centre for Supercomputing Applications, in Illinois, built a supercomputer out of around a hundred PlayStation2 chips.

Meanwhile, another system, built by Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia, was created from 1,100 Apple G5 chips and commercial off-the-shelf networking components. The $5.2m system was ranked as the third-fastest in the world. Such systems are of growing interest to corporate buyers, and led IBM to decide last year to begin selling supercomputer-class machines commercially.

This month, the Council on Competitiveness, a lobby group based in Washington, DC, organised a meeting of American supercomputer users. The range of attendees highlighted the growing industrial importance of supercomputing. Film studios, for instance, use them for everything from special effects to creating entire films. Procter & Gamble, a household-goods company based in Cincinnati, Ohio has used them to redesign the manufacturing process for Pringles crisps.

Two applications in particular have driven the development of supercomputers: the modelling of climate change and of what happens inside a nuclear explosion—the second of which is necessary because of the ban on actual nuclear testing that is obeyed by established nuclear powers….

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