From “Calculator” to Supercomputer

From “Calculator” to Supercomputer

Innovation Technology

Fifty years ago, ŠKODA bought the same computer that helped Neil Armstrong to land on the moon. By today’s standards, its computing capacity might most kindly be described as risible. Now a brand new supercomputer is being introduced at the company’s headquarters in Mladá Boleslav. Let’s compare these two computers!

31. 10. 2019

It is exactly 50 years since ŠKODA – then known as AZNP (Automobilové Závody, národní podnik) – installed its first mainframe in Mladá Boleslav. With the order for the computer having been signed off in August 1968, days before the Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia, AZNP managed to buy a machine of American origin just before this window of opportunity closed. If they had delayed the signing, the first computer in Mladá Boleslav would most likely have been Soviet.

The US computer bought by the Czechoslovak carmaker was an IBM 360, the same state-of-the-art model that assisted the space centre in Houston in the summer of 1969 as it landed the first human on the moon. For AZNP, buying its first mainframe computer was a big deal.

skoda-ibm-aznp-old-computer-data-centreArchive photo – the first IBM 360 mainframe, AZNP, Mladá Boleslav

It purchased the smallest version – the 30. These versions varied in performance and size, with the 30 weighing almost 800 kilograms and occupying the same space as a large wardrobe. Its speed of 30,000 operations per second is comical today; even the very cheapest phones, available for a few euros, deliver several times that performance in the 21st century.

The actual payment for the computer was a strange affair. Paradoxically, while IBM had one sales representative in Communist Czechoslovakia, who had set up shop at the Alcron Hotel in Prague, he was not allowed to employ anyone, and all purchases and training took place at the nearest branch office. In Vienna. This is where the sale itself was made.

It was hardly easy. AZNP, working in conjunction with a foreign-trade company, first exported several of its 1000 MB cars to Austria. Unable to sell these vehicles directly to customers, it received vegetables in exchange for them. These vegetables were sold straight away, still in Austria, and the proceeds – now in schillings – were used to finance the purchase of the computer. The computer’s main task was to mass-process data from many different areas, such as optimisation calculations, planning, costing and invoicing.

skoda-data-centre-archive-ibm-computerArchive photo – IBM mainframe

In this day and age, when computers are viewed as consumables, it almost beggars belief that the IBM 360/30 remained in service at the carmaker for twenty solid years. Two trained technicians looked after the computer and reported no electronic malfunctions in two decades. All they had to deal with were consumer issues: the printer chains had to be changed and the magnetic tape heads needed to be cleaned. However, the machine – last turned on in the early 1990s – was not preserved. Instead, it was scrapped.

Latest addition to the IT family

Over the past 50 years, the world has evolved at a formidable pace, and we would be hard put to find an area in which development has been more remarkable than in the field of computer technology. The new data centre that has just opened in Mladá Boleslav is proof of this. At its heart is the most powerful company supercomputer in the Czech Republic.

Its computing power is 2 petaFLOPS, or 2 trillion operations per second. That’s nearly 67 billion times more than the IBM 360 had 50 years ago. This number is so big that, for most people, it is a figure their brains can’t compute. Translating it into distance, if the original IBM mainframe moved 12 millimetres per second, the new supercomputer could cover the distance from Earth to the moon and back in the same time!

Škoda Auto,datové centrum, HPC clustery, chladící infrastruktura, superpočítač, supercomputer

If that trip to the moon and back knocked your socks off, think twice about reading on because that performance is far from final. There are plans to increase capacity further, from two to fifteen petaFLOPS. “Whatever for?” you might be asking. The supercomputer will mainly be used to solve tasks related to aerodynamics, car safety and engine development.

Naturally, higher computing power necessitates more space. While the IBM computer was the size of a wardrobe, the new supercomputer extends over 1,700 m² and occupies an area roughly the same as an ice-hockey rink. So it is hardly surprising that, altogether, the cables run for a total length of 210 km.

It stands to reason that such a large and powerful computer also needs large and powerful cooling. The supercomputer is water-cooled and, as part of the “Green Data” concept, the heated water this process generates is further used to heat office buildings. Simply Clever!

Data centre
Data centre

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