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The Alliant FX/8, an early parallell supercomputer.

The Alliant FX/8, an early parallell supercomputer.

For the last few decades, parallelism has been the secret weapon of computing. Based on the theory that large problems could be solved faster if they are chopped up into smaller problems performed simultaneously, parallel computing has driven supercomputers to their current petascale power. Recently, the concept has spread to consumer computers as well, as clock speed limitations of single processors led manufacturers to switch to multi-core chips combining 2, 4 or 8 CPUs. But in the early 1980’s, when Argonne National Laboratory created its Argonne Leadership Research Facility, the path of parallelism was not so clear.

The origin, subsequent impact and future role of this technology were the topics of discussion at the Thirty Years of Parallel Computing at Argonne symposium, held over two days earlier this week. Luminaries of the computer industry and research community — many of them Argonne alumni or collaborators — met on the Argonne campus to share stories of the laboratory’s instrumental role in nurturing parallel computers and the software they use, and how the approach helped to create the computational science of today and tomorrow.

From a modern perspective, it was hard to spot the world-changing potential in Jack Dongarra’s pictures and descriptions of the earliest Argonne parallel computers, which more resembled washer-dryers than today’s sleek, gargantuan supercomputers. The diversity of parallel machines purchased by the ACRF — 13 in its first 8 years, Dongarra said — reflected the excitement and uncertainty about parallel computing in those early days.

“We knew that parallel computing was the way HPC was going to be done in the future,” said Paul Messina, director of science at what is now known as the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility. “But there was no clear winner in terms of parallel architectures.”

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