Tech advances help make supercomputers more accessible

Brown University is making its new supercomputer available to organizations statewide.

Increased web access to powerful computing networks, along with federal funding and the declining cost of parts for supercomputers, have made the technology more available to college students and university researchers.

Once the domain of elite universities that regularly roped in millions of dollars in funding for scientific research, supercomputers have become more readily available in higher education and through competitive programs that aid the most worthy projects that require supercomputing capabilities.

Cloud computing—accessing virtual warehouses of information and calculation tools via the internet—has played a major role in the democratization of supercomputing, experts said.

Students, faculty, and researchers now can connect to powerful servers through their own PC, instead of having to trek to a distant machine in a university or government lab.

Amazon Web Services (AWS), Inc.’s cloud-computing service, recently gave Harvard University students access to the company’s global computer infrastructure, allowing the students to complete projects and assignments that might have crashed their laptops and PCs.

“It makes possible resources that universities might not be able to provide for students,” said David Malan, a Harvard computer science professor whose class used the high-powered web resources. Amazon gave Malan’s students about $100 in server usage apiece.

The falling price of parts needed to build a high-performing machine is another factor that has made supercomputers more widely available to researchers.

High-performance computers, which cost about $5 million to make in the 1980s, dropped to about $1 million in the 1990s and have fallen precipitously in the 2000s, now costing about $100,000, according to research from Scientific Computing, a website that tracks supercomputing trends.

Higher education’s supercomputing experts said quickly evolving technology might bring down the price of supercomputer parts, but the availability of new equipment often changes the very definition of what a high-performance machine is.