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Welcome to the age of pervasive supercomputing

Richard Adler | Oct. 1, 2014
The emergence of supercomputing in everyday life will require a new kind of literacy that will allow us to appreciate what the technology can — and can’t — do.

A supercomputer of one's own
As cool as these applications are, perhaps the most significant aspect of this trend is the ability of anyone with an Internet connection to make direct use of supercomputing capabilities for his or her own purposes. The availability of these resources makes it possible for users to rapidly develop and deploy powerful new applications or carry out sophisticated data analyses without the need to invest in hardware

Services like Google's Compute Engine, Amazon's Web Services and Microsoft's Azure are competing fiercely to provide access to computing power in the cloud by lowering prices and providing tools to simplify use. In fact, these services typically offer free trials and minute-by-minute billing for usage that make these capabilities readily available to everyone from large corporations and government agencies to tiny startups and even individuals. For instance, this summer, a pair of researchers in England disclosed that they had built a digital currency-mining program at no cost by taking advantage of free cloud-based supercomputing trial offers. Using publicly available tools and the free supercomputer time, the team was able to earn $1,750 per week in Litecoin -- an alternative to Bitcoin -- through its operations.

What the world needs now
To fully realize the potential of the newly pervasive supercomputing environment, two things are needed: a new type of literacy that will enable us to use the technology properly, and the appropriate network infrastructure to provide full access to its capabilities.

Just as the spread of computers and the Internet created a need for digital literacy skills, so the emergence of supercomputing will require a new kind of literacy that will allow us to appreciate what the technology can -- and can't -- do. According to my colleague at the Institute for the Future Mike Liebhold, these new skills include an understanding of the basic principles of logic and statistics (for example, the difference between correlation and causation), the ability to factor problems in ways that can be addressed by the parallel processing abilities of supercomputers, and familiarity with the use of data visualization techniques to simplify complex problems. We also need to remember that as powerful as these tools are, they are intended to support and enhance human capabilities, not replace them.

Second, we need networks that have the technical characteristics needed to deliver the power of supercomputing in close to real time. Getting full access to high-performance computers that send and receive high volumes of data currently requires a dedicated connection with customized capabilities (such as those available through the National LambdaRail fiber optic network that serves universities and advanced research labs across the country).


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