Supercomputer Definition

Alsina González
Specialist journalist and researcher

Its name practically says everything about this class of machines: they are computers that follow the basic principles of any other (like the one we have at home), but with much greater power.

A supercomputer has a calculation capacity far superior to that of any desktop or laptop computer, in addition to being usually used for specific and specific purposes, and not for general purpose tasks.

Such raw computing power usually comes from adding the power of what will be hundreds or thousands of individual computers, since we can see a supercomputer as a network of computers working in unison.

Historically, the concept of a supercomputer was born in the 1970s, when technology was advanced enough to create the first machines of this type.

And the first computers had a proper name: Cray, the manufacturer founded by Seymour Cray and which specialized in building supercomputers.

Cray Research represented, especially with its first models, the birth of the supercomputer as we know it today, with great speed and power, and dedicated to specific tasks for which they had an operating system derived from UNIX

The Cray-1 and the following models also provided a plus of aesthetic beauty that allowed the company or institution that acquired them to show them off as if they were designer furniture.

To get an idea of ​​the power of these machines, the Cray-1 from 1972 was already a 64-bit supercomputer, when this technology has only been available to the final public on desktop computers throughout the first years of the new millennium. .

In the 1980s, various manufacturers entered the field of supercomputers, increasing competition in this very specific segment.

With the increase in performance of microprocessors for desktop computers, and those dedicated to servers, supercomputers began to mount these, resulting in an accumulation of resources

The power that supercomputers achieve is, therefore, equivalent to what would be the sum of many of the most powerful individual computers that we can have in an office: its servers.

The supercomputer business has also changed; If until a few years ago, they were built in a more or less standardized way and sold to customers, who gave them the use they wanted, now they are more tailored developments, like tailoring suits.

With regard to the software that equips supercomputers, the former almost invariably mounted some variation of the UNIX standard, but the operating system that has dominated this specific segment for some years now is GNU/Linux, with a minority percentage for other variants. UNIX and, far behind, Windows, of which Microsoft has also made a specific version for supercomputers.

The scalability capabilities, the low cost and great standardization that the use of Linux implies, have led the penguin operating system to become the great dominator of this sector for just over a decade.

Photos: Fotolia – vladimircaribb / flydragon

By: Alsina González. Studies in computer engineering at the University of Girona, experience in numerous traditional and digital technology media, and researcher on history issues on the axis of the Second World War.
Work published in: Jun., 2017.


González, GA (June, 2017). Definition of Supercomputer.