What is High Performance?
The simplest explanation of high performance computing (HPC) is a computer that has more processing power than is traditionally available to the average person. In the 20th Century they called them supercomputers, but the term is in obsolescence since the computing power of the desktop has risen so dramatically over the last two decades. A computer's performance is measured in memory, number of processors, number of processor cores and bus architecture. Memory or RAM is how much information the computer can hold in working memory--before it has to write something to a disk. The number of processors and cores are comparable to pistons in a car. A car with more pistons, is more efficient than another car with fewer pistons and the same displacement. The bus architecture is the highway or dirt road that the information inside the computer travels on--the larger the bus the more efficient the movement of data.
Lawrence Livermore and other national laboratories spend in excess of $1,000,000 annually on climate control systems for their supercomputers. These systems have thousands of processor cores and terabytes of memory to crunch complex problems in a timely fashion. Systems like theses require years of planning and vast institutional support to build and maintain. Computing resources are awarded to projects based on merit. Systems such as these are the true supercomputers.
The Lines Blurred
The advent of the dual-core processor was the beginning of real computing horsepower for the desktop. Multi-core processors eliminated the need for multiple CPU's which is the biggest hurdle to building extremely powerful consumer computers. Most desktop and server hardware can handle two and sometimes four physical processors. However, most operating systems can use as many cores as the CPU's can handle. Until recently desktop computers came with a 32 bit architecture which limited memory to 4 GB. Servers could use more memory, but at a substantially higher cost per gigabyte. The release of Windows 7 Enterprise/Ultimate with 64 bit computing makes 128 GB of memory and 256 processor cores accessible to the operating system; something not achievable in the Microsoft Windows Server 2003, Enterprise Edition which capped memory at 64GB.
What's in it for me?
Moving into the Future
At some point everyone with a computer asks if they need to upgrade to a newer system. This is usually prompted by noticeable slowness or a new software/ hardware item that will not run on the current operating system. Making a decision to move to a new operating system is not a light one and it may involve moving to a completely different platform (i.e. Windows to Mac). In a home setting this decision must be based on the software you use. If you need to buy a new computer, you probably only need one. In a business setting, the same decision could involve dozens to thousands of machines and in both cases it will be an enduring decision for years to come.
If you're wondering why you would switch to a new operating system that can run more memory than your entire neighborhood does combined, consider the resources used by true supercomputers. Computing power comes from energy and is sometimes called overclocking. This is running more power through your computer to make the processor work faster than it is rated. The problem with this is the more power you put into it, the hotter it gets. Besides melting your computer or starting a fire, the heat, as with any electrical circuit, is waste. A hot computer is a slow one and for that reason supercomputing facilities spend enormous amounts of money on air conditioning. Consider in your own home, if you have two or more computers, what would be more cost-effective: Cool each room with a compter separately or cool a single space no bigger than a closet and network the separate terminals or thin clients in the house.
Windows 7 is a modern operating system that is a fresh departure from the limitations and incompatibilities of XP and Vista. Windows 7 comes in six different editions. Only the Enterprise/Ultimate editions come with all the features, but the professional edition has the same performance capabilities. The capabilities of this new operating system open ways to reduce the amount of computing hardware needed and make high-end software available to consumers. Unlike its immediate predecessor, it will have years of utility and is a sound investment for users invested in Microsoft-based computing.