3.7 Sixth Generation (1990 - )



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3.7 Sixth Generation (1990 - )

  Transitions between generations in computer technology are hard to define, especially as they are taking place. Some changes, such as the switch from vacuum tubes to transistors, are immediately apparent as fundamental changes, but others are clear only in retrospect. Many of the developments in computer systems since 1990 reflect gradual improvements over established systems, and thus it is hard to claim they represent a transition to a new ``generation'', but other developments will prove to be significant changes.

In this section we offer some assessments about recent developments and current trends that we think will have a significant impact on computational science.


Table 2 Network Speeds View table

This generation is beginning with many gains in parallel computing, both in the hardware area and in improved understanding of how to develop algorithms to exploit diverse, massively parallel architectures. Parallel systems now compete with vector processors in terms of total computing power and most expect parallel systems to dominate the future.

Combinations of parallel/vector architectures are well established, and one corporation (Fujitsu) has announced plans to build a system with over 200 of its high end vector processors. Manufacturers have set themselves the goal of achieving teraflops ( 10 arithmetic operations per second) performance by the middle of the decade, and it is clear this will be obtained only by a system with a thousand processors or more. Workstation technology has continued to improve, with processor designs now using a combination of RISC, pipelining, and parallel processing. As a result it is now possible to purchase a desktop workstation for about $30,000 that has the same overall computing power (100 megaflops) as fourth generation supercomputers. This development has sparked an interest in heterogeneous computing: a program started on one workstation can find idle workstations elsewhere in the local network to run parallel subtasks.

One of the most dramatic changes in the sixth generation will be the explosive growth of wide area networking. Network bandwidth has expanded tremendously in the last few years and will continue to improve for the next several years. T1 transmission rates are now standard for regional networks, and the national ``backbone'' that interconnects regional networks uses T3. Networking technology is becoming more widespread than its original strong base in universities and government laboratories as it is rapidly finding application in K-12 education, community networks and private industry. A little over a decade after the warning voiced in the Lax report, the future of a strong computational science infrastructure is bright. The federal commitment to high performance computing has been further strengthened with the passage of two particularly significant pieces of legislation: the High Performance Computing Act of 1991, which established the High Performance Computing and Communication Program (HPCCP) and Sen. Gore's Information Infrastructure and Technology Act of 1992, which addresses a broad spectrum of issues ranging from high performance computing to expanded network access and the necessity to make leading edge technologies available to educators from kindergarten through graduate school.

In bringing this encapsulated survey of the development of a computational science infrastructure up to date, we observe that the President's FY 1993 budget contains $2.1 billion for mathematics, science, technology and science literacy educational programs, a 43% increase over FY 90 figures.



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Next: 4 The Modern High Up: 3 A Brief History Previous: 3.6 Fifth Generation (1984-1990)



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