Supercomputing conference brings big ideas to Utah

Published: Monday, Nov. 12 2012 6:53 p.m. MST

Computer experts get their exhibits ready for the convention Monday, Nov. 12, 2012. More than 10,000 of the world's top supercomputing and networking experts as well as more than 300 leading manufacturers and research institutions from around the globe will attend SC12, the supercomputing convention, Nov 10-16 at the Salt Palace.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Silicon Valley may be located in northern California, but at least for this week, Salt Lake City will be among the technology capitals of the world.

Approximately 10,000 people are expected to attend SC12 — the global supercomputing convention that officially kicked off Monday at the Salt Palace. In addition, the event includes more than 300 manufacturers and research institutions from around the world.

SC12 features top technologies and applications in fields such as climate change, energy efficiency and biocomputing.

“Supercomputers are the largest computers in the world,” said Jeff Hollingsworth, conference chairman and professor of computer science at the University of Maryland. “They are made up of hundreds of thousands of the kinds of chips you would find in your average laptop or desktop — all working together to solve some of the really big science problems of today.”

Supercomputers typically are used to solve complex calculations due to their exceptional processing capacity, particularly the speed of calculation, he explained.

Supercomputers were pioneered by Seymour Cray in the 1960s. Early supercomputers from the 1970s used just a few processors, but machines with thousands of processors began to appear by the end of the 20th century.

Hollingsworth said today’s society has come to depend on supercomputing technology for everyday issues like weather simulation. The technology is used to develop computer models to determine the potential effects of weather patterns for events like superstorm Sandy that devastated the East Coast last month.

Supercomputing systems with a large number of processors generally take one of two paths. In one approach called grid computing, the processing power of a large number of computers in distributed, diverse administrative domains is used whenever a computer is available.

While in another approach, a large number of processors are used in close proximity to one another called a computer cluster. The use of multicore processors combined with centralization is an emerging application.

According to the Top500 list of the fastest supercomputers released Monday at the SC12 supercomputing show, the Cray Titan is the world's fastest supercomputer.

Supercomputers are also used for highly calculation-intensive tasks such as problems including quantum physics, climate research, oil and gas exploration, molecular modeling and physical simulations such as airplanes in wind tunnels, the detonation of nuclear weapons and research into nuclear fusion.

Hollingsworth said there is a constant need by today’s scientists for more capacity from supercomputers to solve increasing complex problems.

“Using the weather example, what you can do with more supercomputing power is to more accurately predict where storms will be and predict them further in the future,” he said. He added that supercomputing will also help develop better airplane wings or better internal combustion engines for vehicles to improve fuel economy.

“Supercomputing does have an effect on everyone’s everyday life,” Hollingsworth said.

The supercomputing field continues to grow and is likely to be one of the more fertile career fields for students considering their future education and vocational options, he said.

In fact, a team of five Skyline High School 11th graders became the only high school students to participate in the conference's annual supercomputing competition. Until now, contestants had all been university-level students.

"We are really thrilled to be the first high school representatives," said team captain Nathan Moos.

According to Hollingsworth, Moos and his teammates are exactly the kinds of bright minds the high-tech field is looking to cultivate.

“There is a shortage of people with the computing expertise in this country right now,” he said. “There is strong demand across the field for all skills related to software for everything from hand-held devices to supercomputers. It’s a great career opportunity.”

Visit http://sc12.supercomputing.org/ for more information about SC12, which runs through Friday, Nov. 16.

E-mail: jlee@desnews.com Twitter: JasenLee1

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