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Most simulations can actually be parallelized in such a way that most memory accesses are local - you can divide the object or system in such a way that various parts don't communicate with each other too much, and map that to a cluster computer. But there are some exceptions in which parts of a simulated system can affect each other remotely. For example, in a lot of nuclear simulations, particles produced in one part of the system can very quickly travel to other parts; you have a problem when you have particles in your system which operate on different time scales, e.g. neutrons, heavy nuclei, and photons. This is a big reason why the DOE and nuclear laboratories liked these supercomputer systems.

Another case which I saw personally was a simulation of a part of the visual cortex of the brain; you had neurons which were connected to their neighbors, but you also had a bunch of connections to far-away neurons, and the bandwidth between processors which simulated different parts of the cortex became a limitation (and the huge supercomputers which had the bandwidth were (a) expensive, and (b) had relatively slow processors for the number crunching in each region).

Except in this case, I found that the physical delay which existed on a long connection between neurons allowed us to buffer the messages and send a notification about the whole train of impulses, effectively compressing the data. Together with some other simple changes, the simulation ran 10 to 100 times faster, and could use clusters instead of supercomputers.

In general, there are not that many cases in which you really can't get rid of the requirement of fast non-local memory access; if there were, these supercomputers wouldn't have died out. But they were useful in some cases, and were also good for freeing people from thinking about how to localize their memory accesses - this speeded up development.




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