A Brief History of Supercomputers

PC Processors in the Early 2000s

In early 2001, Intel Pentium III clock speed achieved greater than 1GHz, hitting a maximum of 1.4GHz. It had a large 512KB L2 cache and started at a clock speed of 1.3GHz. However, it was still a 32-bit processor.

In September 2003, AMD released their all-new Athlon 64 processor, which was the first 64-bit PC CPU. Even better, it was backward compatible with the 32-bit x86 instructions and got away from the old FSB architecture, introducing a point-to-point link that was low latency and high bandwidth: HyperTransport. The processor started with 1GHz clock speed and 800MHz HyperTransport speed.

In addition to the HyperTransport bus architecture change, the Athlon 64 incorporated an on-die memory controller, which meant the memory controller was part of the processor itself. The Athlon 64 also supported several instruction sets, including MMX, SSE, SSE2, SSE3, x86-64, and 3DNow! Just about any application in the previous generations that used a specialized instruction set could now run. Importantly, PCs now had a processor with the same precision as supercomputing processors: 64-bit.

The next-generation Intel processor, the Pentium 4, launched in later 2000, started off as a 32-bit processor, but in 2004 Intel released a version of the Pentium 4 (code-named Prescott) that was 64-bit.

In 2005, AMD introduced the Athlon 64 X2 with two separate and complete cores in a single die. It also improved the clock speed up to 3.2GHz and increased the L2 cache up to 1MB per core.

Intel released its first dual-core processor, the Pentium dual-core, in 2006. However, it was still using the FSB architecture. Intel would not have a point-to-point link in its processor line until the Nehalem Clarkdale in 2010. Remember that all these processors could easily be bought, and were bought, by everyday people.

Supercomputer Processors in the Early 2000s

In the early 2000s, SGI released the Origin 3000 with a new version of the MIPS R10000 processor. The R12000 was an improved R10000 and ran up to 360MHz. The R14000 was then introduced into the Origin 3000 as an improved R12000, with up to 500MHz clock speed.

Cray introduced the Cray X1 in 2003. The processor shared the streaming processors and vector caches of the Cray SV1. Each processor ran up to 800MHz. The system could be configured with up to 4,096 processors where there were 1,024 shared memory nodes. Later, in 2005, Cray released the X1E upgrade that used dual-core processors running at 1,150MHz.

NEC launched the SX-6 supercomputer in 2001. A single node had up to eight vector processors and up to 64GB of memory. You could connect up to 128 nodes in a single system. However, NEC created a special version called the Earth Simulator that had 640 nodes. The Earth Simulator was the fastest supercomputer for a considerable time.