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The Social Limits of Speed: The Development and Use of Supercomputers

IP.com Disclosure Number: IPCOM000129794D
Original Publication Date: 1994-Apr-30
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Oct-07
Document File: 27 page(s) / 94K

Publishing Venue

Software Patent Institute

Related People

BOELIE ELZEN: AUTHOR [+3]

Abstract

This article describes the development of supercomputers over the past three decades in conjunction with the social relations surrounding development and use of these machines. In early designs of supercomputers, the goal was to achieve the highest possible speed ";at all cost"; -- that is, without worrying about compatibility with previous machines. The first customers of these computers were national (defense) laboratories and large scientific institutions. Especially over the past decade, however, large industrial corporations have also started to use supercomputers. This expansion of the customer base subsequently affected the design process, as a wider range of customer requirements has to be satisfied and speed considerations are no longer unproblematically paramount.

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THIS DOCUMENT IS AN APPROXIMATE REPRESENTATION OF THE ORIGINAL.

Copyright ©; 1994 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

The Social Limits of Speed: The Development and Use of Supercomputers

BOELIE ELZEN

DONALD MACKENZIE

This article describes the development of supercomputers over the past three decades in conjunction with the social relations surrounding development and use of these machines. In early designs of supercomputers, the goal was to achieve the highest possible speed "at all cost" -- that is, without worrying about compatibility with previous machines. The first customers of these computers were national (defense) laboratories and large scientific institutions. Especially over the past decade, however, large industrial corporations have also started to use supercomputers. This expansion of the customer base subsequently affected the design process, as a wider range of customer requirements has to be satisfied and speed considerations are no longer unproblematically paramount.

Over the past 30 years, supercomputing has developed from a specialized niche market, in which small numbers of extremely fast machines were produced for a handful of unique customers, into a much larger, more mainstream part of the computer business. As it has done so, its nature has changed: The pursuit of speed -- originally the single dominant goal -- has had to be balanced with a wider range of considerations, notably the needs of a growing customer base.

The goal of this article is to describe this change. Our main focus is first on the man who, above all, made the change possible, Seymour Cray, and then on the company he founded (but subsequently left), Cray Research. Inc. But we will place Seymour Cray, Cray Research. and their machines in context, describing also the successes and failures of their main competitors and the changing market they were simultaneously supplying and creating.

We gave a detailed analysis of Seymour Cray's role in the development of supercomputers in an earlier article, which focuses on the social underpinning of the unique "charisma" of Cray.' In another article the historical analysis is brought to bear upon the current situation in US supercomputing. Among the topics dealt with in the latter, which cannot be addressed here, are government policy in regard to supercomputing and the relation between mainstream supercomputing and the new field of massively parallel architectures.2 A previous article in this journal by one of us examined the influence of the originally dominant category of supercomputer user: the nuclear weapons laboratories.' This article tells the other half of the story, so to speak -- how supercomputer use spread, and how the emergence of new users with new needs changed the social and technical dynamics of supercomputing.

Speed versus compatibility

Around 1960, transistorized computers first became commercially available in...