A supercomputer is a computer that performs at a rate of speed far above that of other computers. Given the constantly changing world of computing, it should come as no surprise to learn that most of these machines bear their superlative titles for a few years, at best. Computer programmers are fond of saying that today's supercomputer will become tomorrow's computer; the computers that most average user own today are probably more powerful than most historic supercomputers, for example.
The term was coined in 1929 by the New York World to refer to tabulators manufactured by IBM. To modern computer users, these tabulators would probably appear awkward, slow, and cumbersome to use, but at the time, they represented the cutting edge of technology. This continues to be true of supercomputers today, which harness immense processing power so that they are incredibly fast, sophisticated, and powerful.
The primary use for these computers is in scientific computing, which requires high-powered machines to perform complex calculations. Scientific organizations like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) boast computers the size of rooms for the purpose of performing calculations, rendering complex formulas, and performing other tasks which require a formidable amount of computer power. Some machines have also been designed for very specific functions, like cracking codes and playing chess; Deep Blue is a famous chess-playing supercomputer.
In many cases, a supercomputer is custom-assembled, using elements from a range of computer manufacturers and tailored for its intended use. Most run on a Linux® or UNIX® operating system, as these operating systems are extremely flexible, stable, and efficient. They typically have multiple processors and a variety of other technological tricks to ensure that they run smoothly.
One of the biggest concerns with running such a powerful machine is cooling. As one might imagine, these computers get extremely hot as they run, requiring complex cooling systems to ensure that no part fails. Many of these cooling systems take advantage of liquid gases, which can get extremely cold. Another issue is the speed at which information can be transferred or written to a storage device, as the speed of data transfer will limit the computer's performance.