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Lost in Cyberspace

Super sites offer lots of info on supercomputers

This article was originally published on May 5, 1998 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

It's like the difference between the space shuttle and a model rocket, between a nice Beaujolais and Boone's Farm, between Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The supercomputers used by scientists and the PC you're reading this on are almost different animals, the difference is so great. Start with just the price: Your personal computer probably cost under $3,500; a mid-priced supercomputer will run into the hundreds of thousands – the really high-end ones run into the millions.

And while the personal computer has moved from the realm of the hobbyist into becoming as ubiquitous a home appliance as the TV, the supercomputer remains foreign and mysterious to most of us.

Not surprisingly, there are many good Web sites where you can learn more about supercomputers. One of the very best is the online home of Cray Research. Now owned by Silicon Graphics (November 2000 update: Cray was sold earlier in 2000, and is again independent), Cray Research was the company most responsible for the development of the supercomputer during the 1970s. Founded by Seymour Cray, who had designed some of the fastest and most powerful computers of the 1960s while at Control Data Corporation, Cray Research became synonymous with supercomputers.

The historical info on this site isn't that easy to find, but with some digging you can locate it all. Photographs and specs on the company's current line of computers are fairly easy to find, as is a nice section on Seymour Cray, including a biography. You can either search or simply go to the Gallery to find the older Cray systems – the machines that helped redefine the industry.

The Charles Babbage Institute also has much information on Cray supercomputers, including an online "virtual" version of Cray Research's own corporate museum. This Cray site also has a pictorial history of Control Data Corp. The San Diego Supercomputer Center has a well-organized site – with in-depth looks at topics other than hardware. At SDSC's site, you can learn how supercomputers are used in research and on campus there at the University of California, San Diego.

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications is, like the San Diego Supercomputer Center, part of the National Science Foundation Supercomputer Centers Program. There are pages here on various programs to bring the power of supercomputers to bear on specific scientific problems, from cosmology to cellular biology. Gee-whiz entries include an animated 3-D model of a beating dog heart and a visual representation of a solar nova.

Another manufacturer of supercomputers, and the only company of late to really give Cray a run for its money, is NEC. A global conglomerate for whom supercomputers are only one more product (as opposed to Cray, for whom supercomputers are the only product), NEC has an entire section on its Web site devoted to its supercomputer line.

All of the above are interesting, but the most unusual supercomputer site has to be the Arctic Region Supercomputing Center in Alaska. Aside from the remote location (which just might keep those air-conditioning bills down), the site is one of the more informative – and the online projects about arctic geology and weather are interesting.