Torontoist visits SciNet


In July, Torontoist reporter Steve Kupferman and photographer Michael Chrisman took a tour of the super secret SciNet data centre in Vaughan. Take a look at their article, Unseen City: The SciNet Supercomputer.

One of the earliest innovators in the realm of high-performance computing was Gaspard Clair François Marie Riche de Prony. In 1791―as David Alan Grier tells it in his book, When Computers Were Human―de Prony, a middle-aged civil engineer, was asked by the newly instated revolutionary government of France to create a detailed set of trigonometric tables (which are good for making the types of precise angle measurements necessary for large engineering projects). De Prony realized that the computational demands of the task at hand were too great for him to handle on his own; he was going to need help, and lots of it. Taking a cue from Adam Smith, he hired a staff of around ninety workers to do the arithmetic, many of them former wig-makers left jobless after the revolution. (Members of the aristocratic classes were about to lose their heads and were therefore in less need of fashionable things to put on top of them.) The work was finished after about a decade, by which point it was too late: de Prony’s government had grown indifferent to the project, and his publisher had gone bankrupt.

This has been a roundabout way of establishing the following: if de Prony had possessed a computer as brawny as the one operated by Toronto’s SciNet consortium,he would have finished his decade-long computation in seconds. SciNet’s machine can do the work of trillions of wig-makers.