Supercomputing History: The Cloud Before the Cloud – Metacomputing and Heterogeneous Supercomputing

Kevin Walsh
Kevin Walsh, SC18 30th Anniversary Chair

The term “metacomputing” was coined around 1987 by NCSA Director, Larry Smarr. But the genesis of metacomputing at NCSA took place years earlier, when the center was founded in 1986. Smarr’s goal was to provide the research community with a “Seamless Web” linking the user interface on the workstation and supercomputers.

By 1988, NCSA’s vision of the metacomputer, as far as hardware was concerned, consisted of vector multi-processors integrated with the newly-emerging massively parallel architectures. An early metacomputer diagram showed a gigabit/second local area network linking the massively-parallel Connection Machine-2 (CM-2) with a Cray-2 vector supercomputer, a file server mainframe computer and a workstation. But it soon became apparent that, while supercomputer technology was advancing at a rapid pace, the other components of the metacomputer–the network, storage systems, software and visualization–were not. Researchers had to customize their applications that were then impossible to adapt to new technologies or other scientific uses.

In short, the metacomputer was an early forecast of the cloud computing that has become predominate circa 2018.

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