High Performance Computing

What is high-performance computing (HPC) and why does it matter?

Megan Gatlin

May 1, 2021

For many people, sitting at home and harnessing the power of their laptop, or desktop is sufficient. After all, these devices come with 3 GHz processors and can far outperform any human in terms of speed. With the ability to carry out some 3 billion calculations every second, human beings are left in awe of this power. Where high-performance computing comes in is when this already awe-inspiring speed is not enough.

High-performance computing (HPC) brings even faster speeds. Rather than mere billions of calculations per second, these machines are capable of performing quadrillions of them. The power, and the speed, of these computers, is nothing short of phenomenal. Perhaps the best-known type of HPC is a supercomputer. We will be discussing supercomputers a little later, but essentially these see the equivalent power and speed of thousands and thousands of PCs all working at once.

If HPC is a new concept to you, you may be left wondering why it matters. We’re here to show you that this is not just about speed for speed’s sake: it is about harnessing powerful technology that has a multitude of applications. Read on to learn more.

Why is high-performance computing important?

It is easy to dismiss HPC as having little practical application. It can be seen as the result of humans always seeking something that is faster, more powerful, and generally just better. The truth, however, is quite different. Data is key to scientific discoveries, innovations, and improvements to the quality of life. HPC is the gateway to this data and provides the building blocks for advancements in science, society, and industry.

If you take a look around at emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, 3-D imaging, and the Internet of Things, they demonstrate that the amount of data that organizations have to work with is growing, and growing fast. There is a need to be able to process data in real-time, and this need is ever increasing. It is used for:

  • Tracking weather
  • Streaming live sports events
  • Analyzing stocks and shares
  • The testing of new products

No organization wants to be the one that falls behind. To stay ahead they need an IT infrastructure that is fast, secure, and able to analyze masses of data. Companies involved with HPC stand to benefit today, and in the future, thanks to the competitive nature of business. If businesses battle it out, those able to provide the HPC services will always win.

How does high-performance computing work?

High-performance computing solutions consist of three major components:

  • Compute
  • Network
  • Storage

To establish a high performing computing architecture, ‘compute’ servers need to be networked together to form a cluster. The servers in these clusters run algorithms and software programmes simultaneously. The output is captured as the cluster is networked to the data storage. What appears to be distinct and separate tasks all operate seamlessly.

Each of the three components must keep up with the other. If they fail to do so then the levels of performance are adversely affected. If one component falls behind, then there is the risk that the whole infrastructure will simply fail.

An example can be seen by looking at the storage component. This needs the ability to feed data to and from the computer servers at the same speed that it is processed. A further example can be seen by looking at the networking components. These need to support the high speeds that data is transported at between the computer servers and the data storage.

What is meant by a high performance computing cluster?

Having touched on high-performance computing clusters previously, it is worth taking a moment to examine what these are.

HPC clusters are each made up of hundreds of thousands of ‘compute’ servers. These servers are all networked together. The computer servers are referred to as nodes and each node within a cluster works in parallel with the others. It is this parallel working that leads to the increased speeds that high-performance computing is known for.

High-performance computing and supercomputers

In our introduction, we touched on supercomputers as being the most well-known type of HPC. We’re now going to take a look at what a supercomputer is. Firstly, a supercomputer comprises thousands of compute nodes. These nodes are set to work together with the aim of completing tasks. In the past, these supercomputers were single machines capable of operating at extraordinary speeds. Today’s supercomputers look a little different.

Modern-day supercomputers are more than a single machine. They are made up using massive clusters of servers and have one or more CPUs. Today’s supercomputer is capable of speeds never before possible and can solve complex problems in record time. As we shall see, these capabilities mean that supercomputers have a whole host of uses, which means that various industries can benefit, and demand is higher than ever.

What is high-performance computing used for?

We have already said that developing HPCs isn’t about speed for speed’s sake. There are numerous practical applications to consider and a wide range of industries where high-performance computing has brought benefits. These include:


High-performance computing is used in the medical arena. It has been shown to be useful in terms of developing cures. So far, it has been used for the likes of diabetes and cancer. It can also assist when it comes to diagnosis, making this more accurate and faster.


Away from the medical world, high-performance computing also brings benefits to other research labs. Here, HPC is utilized to create new materials, investigate the origins of the universe, and find sources of renewable energy. Of course, this list is by no means definitive.

Financial services

There has been a rise in companies that offer automated trading. The type where a bot will follow the methods and strategies used by other successful traders. We have high-performance computing to thank for these. HPC has not only led to automated trading but also real-time tracking of stock trends.

Entertainment and media

If you have ever watched a film where the special effects have been beyond impressive, the chances are that high-performance computing was behind them. HPC is also used in the editing process of these films. Aside from just feature films, it is also a vital component when it comes to streaming live events.

Artificial intelligence (AI)

We have all seen the news with regards to self-drive cars and how these are developing at pace. High-performance computing plays a significant role in these cars as well as identifying the likes of credit card fraud and even cancer screening. HPC can be seen as an integral part of AI.

Oil and gas

Given current world events, it has perhaps never been more important for countries to be able to rely on their own energy supplies or those of a friendly neighbor. HPC allows more accurate identification of new drill sites and has also helped to increase production from existing ones.

Product development

High-performance computing is also used in the design process of new products. The use of HPC can ensure that key parts are kept in stock, allowing production to keep flowing, as well as simulating test scenarios to establish how a product would perform.

The benefits of high-performance computing?

When looking at the importance of high-performance computing, we have already seen the numerous industries where it can be utilized, but what of the benefits of doing this? HPC has several key benefits:


While the exact speed of an HPC is down to how it has been configured, there is no getting away from the fact that calculations can be performed at mind-blowing speeds. Some of the factors that can influence speed are the software being run, the operating system, and the complexity of the calculation/problem being solved.


Whether opting for on-premise or cloud, high-performance computing can be customized to meet an organization's needs. There are cloud providers that will give users the freedom to choose the GPUs being used to ensure they meet the requirements of any given project.

Fault tolerance

A high-performance computing system will not fail just because of the failure of one of its parts. The workloads of HPCs are compute-heavy and fault tolerance means that calculations and computations are not subjected to interruptions.


With more and more brands competing in the space, the upfront costs have fallen. Companies are keen to be seen to deliver the very best return on investment. This means looking at the likes of power consumption, the cost of cooling, and ongoing maintenance.

Final thoughts

Even without the knowledge of how high-performance computing works, the benefits that are brought about by this technology are clear. HPC has allowed for far-reaching developments and enhancements in numerous fields.

The use of HPC is, in no small way, shaping our entire future. With automated cars and medical advancements just two areas of our lives being touched, there is no escaping the influence that HPC is having now, and the increasing influence that it will have into the future. Those behind HPC services will continue to see exponential growth as its practical application continues to increase.