I'm enough of a geek to remember the excitement of running my first job on a supercomputer (in 1984 on a Cray X-MP). That machine ran at about 200 megaflops (floating point operations pers second) -- the laptop I'm typing on now is significantly faster. The present generation of supercomputers maxes out in the teraflop range, the current #1 machine is the Earth Simulator in Japan which clocks in at 35 teraflops!
Building and maintaining a supercomputer is an expensive business. There are some cheaper alternatives, such as beowulf clusters and grid computing, that let you spread problems out over a number of machines linked either by cables (the beowulfs) or over a network (grid). SETI@home is probably the most famous grid computing effort. Both methods require some kind of investment in a permanent infrastructure - what if you just wanted a supercomputer for day or two? You could ask for time on at one of the centers, or you could invite some friends with laptops over for pizza and build your own!
The FlashMob team has developed software that lets you link whatever computers you have lying around the house into an ad hoc cluster, run your huge computational problem, then unlink, have dessert and send everyone home. Download the software and give it a try!
The ACS Computers in Chemistry Division (I'm a past chair) and the Philadelphia section of the ACS are hosting an instant supercomputer event September 15 at Bryn Mawr. If you're in the Philly area and interested in computational chemistry, supercomputers, or just want to be able to say that your laptops was once part of a supercomputer, join us! More details coming later in the summer.
5 hours ago in The Phytophactor