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Supercomputing turns twenty

Russel Winder, Concertant

So the Supercomputing conference has been going twenty years, and looks set for another twenty! Whilst the trade show and the conference sessions got most attention and attendance, there was a corner of the conference that took a lot of effort to put together, was fascinating, but seemed sadly under observed: the twentieth anniversary exhibition.

SC08 20th Anniversary exhibition, the Cray 1 The Cray-1 is arguably the most iconic computer of all time – it is almost certainly the most expensive bench seat of all time.
As you can see from the photos, the exhibition was a simple collection of 20 “modules”. This belies however the significance of the historical story told by the sequence of modules – which was truly fascinating. Each module represented a year, with the upper panel giving some information about the conference, and the hardware and software highlights of that year, and the case containing some bits and pieces of hardware (and in some cases manuals) from that year. Some of the highlights were, at least in hindsight, fashions of the moment, most though were exemplars of significant milestones in the development of supercomputers – each year had something of note. SC08 20th Anniversary exhibition during the daySC08 20th Anniversary exhibition during the evening

Two years had specific, non-technical highs:

1992 – a Cray C90 processor and memory boards that were gold-plated all over. Everyone your correspondent overheard remarked on how beautiful these objects were simply as objects: here we have computer hardware as art! SC08 20th Anniversary exhibition 1992 module, the Cray C90 processor and memory board.
1998 – George Lucas scrawled on a router box in a gold pen. The Force definitely is with this bit of equipment! SC08 20th Anniversary exhibition 1998 module, George Lucas' scrawl on a router.

The real message that came across from the modules seemed to be plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose : the technology may change phenomenally rapidly but supercomputers always comprise a collection of boards wired together. The pace of technology change is a consequence of Moore's Law certainly, but it is phenomenal nonetheless.

It seems a shame that so few people appeared to take the few minutes needed to wander round this exhibition. Perhaps the SC09 organizers could use the fact that next year is the 21st anniversary – Supercomputing will be an adult! – to reshow (with one more module) the whole exhibition.


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