Computer Science in itself is a huge field, and one of it sub-fields is HPC. HPC, short for High Performance Computing is little known, even among Computer Scientists and even more so in the general public. You might have heard of, or seen pictures of, “supercomputers”. They fill huge rooms with aisle after aisle of cabinets (and often feature some pretty graphic on the outside).

So you might ask, what’s the difference between a supercomputer and one of Google’s datacentres?

First is their configuration: even though both have lots of cabinets stuffed with computer hardware, the hardware in a normal datacentre is set up in a way such that it functions as many “small” computers (but those are still bigger than your PC at home!). The hardware in a supercomputer on the other hand is all tied together to form one massive computer where you can run your program on.

And the second difference is their use case: common services like websites, databases or application backends usually run in datacentres. Supercomputers on the other hand are mainly used for scientific simulations. Those might be academic (simulating expanding galaxies or protein reactions) but can also be industrial (simulating airflow over a new airplane design iteration rather than having to physically build and test it in a windtunnel). So both require a huge amount of compute power, but the first does so because it needs to be able to handle large amounts of clients and the second because it solves inherently difficult problems with brute force.

And even if you didn’t fly lately, HPC directly affects you every single day: Every few hours, a supercomputer in the Swiss Supercomputing Centre (CSCS) in Lugano crunches the latest weather data and runs the meteorologists’ simulations to come up with a new weather forecast(*). Meteo Swiss is a leader in this area and thanks to being one of the first to run these simulations on GPUs it is able to achieve predictions for a much finer grid than neighbouring countries.

That’s a short overview of what HPC is and does. If you want to find out more have a look at the field’s two big news websites HPCwire and insideHPC.

(*) Please stop giving bad reviews in the App Store if the weather prediction is bad, it’s usually not the app developer’s fault but the meteorologist’s!