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Miles south of Chicago, amid the wind-swept flatlands of central Illinois, is the home of perhaps the world’s next fastest supercomputer. The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, which is co-developing the Blue Waters supercomputer, is today at the forefront of petascale computing. But 25 years ago, when the Center revved up its first machine, the computing world looked much different.

This article looks back at the highlights in NCSA’s 25-year history, which illustrate well how far computing technology has come in such a short span of time and the various innovations that supercomputers have made possible that we now take for granted. These highlights are based on the slideshow posted on NCSA’s website. (In the interest of full disclosure, ICC works with NCSA on the Dark Energy Survey, so we’re a little biased).

The first supercomputer at NCSA, which went operational in 1986, was a dual-processor machine that performed at about 400 megaflops. In comparison, the upcoming Blue Waters supercomputer will have 300,000 CPUs and a peak performance of 10 petaflops (that’s 25 million times faster than NCSA’s first supercomputer).

In 1998, NCSA came out with its first “cluster”, which connected 128 workstations together and was known as the NT Supercluster. This aggregation of towers looks somewhat comical today, and it wasn’t long before rack servers replaced these bulky form factors.In 1993, NCSA launched the Mosaic web browser, which was the first popular and intuitive graphical web browser. Mosaic was the direct precursor to Netscape Navigator, which itself was developed by former NCSA employees. Since NCSA doubtless received federal grant money during this time, could the development of Mosaic be the origin of Al Gore’s misquoted “claim” that he helped invent the internet? (For the real origin, check out this article on snopes.com)

NT Supercluster at NCSA (circa 1998)

NT Supercluster at NCSA (circa 1998)

From 1989 until the present, NCSA has used supercomputers to develop visualization technology that we have now grown accustomed to when watching IMAX movies or TV documentaries. In 1991, an Illinois researcher named Sever Tipei showed that the patterns in music can be replicated by a computer to produce unique musical compositions (perhaps, as I suspect, some pop music hits coming out today are also being conceived by machines).

Beyond entertainment, the supercomputers at NCSA have helped expand humanity’s toolbox. NCSA cooperates with both industry (through partnerships with aeronatical, pharmaceutical and manufacturing companies) and the academic community (not only science but humanities departments are utilizing computers to further their work) to offer practical approaches to solving contemporary problems.

In 2007, scientist Carlos Simmerling used an NCSA supercomputer to digitally simulate how HIV protease, a molecule that helps form the HIV virus, functions. These simulations revealed how new medications could work to combat HIV. The year before, Klaus Schulten used NCSA’s SGI Altix supercomputer to create the first simulation of a complete life form down to the atomic level.

Supercomputers are also transforming how people learn about the world. NCSA teamed up with other university departments to create the Institute for Chemistry Literacy, which in 2009 reported in The Journal of Mathematics and Science that its training program for science educators in rural Illinois yielded a marked improvement in chemistry content knowledge in students of participating teachers. My favorite education-related project in NCSA is called the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, which will eventually scan and make available online all the writings of our 16th president (including a plot on Google Maps of the locations from where they were written and The Lincoln Log, a day-to-day account of President Lincoln’s life – riveting stuff for a history buff like myself).

So it’s been a busy 25 years for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and the future looks even brighter. Last year, the Director of NCSA testified before Congress on the need for federal support of HPC, especially now that international competition in this field is heating up.

Future innovation will require more and more industries to use high-performance computers to supplement human brainpower, much like machines of steel and steam increased our motive powers during the Industrial Revolution. Supercomputing centers like the one at the University of Illinois are helping to make these technologies available not only to leaders of industry and top-notch researchers, but also to underprivileged communities and the general public around the world.

Whether it’s experimenting with building a cluster out of video-gaming consoles (like NCSA did in 2003 with 70 Playstation 2s) or building the most powerful supercomputer on earth, let’s hope the next quarter-century of supercomputing will be as filled with invention and pragmatic progress as the last.