Meet Herbert Störi, Vienna’s Master of the Supercomputer

“A [spending] limit for supercomputers? Well, it was unthinkable to fly to the moon before they managed to – but it wasn’t cheap!”

It’s not everyday that one gets to stand inside a computer. Cast in blue light, encased in glass, warm and whirring: Austria’s most powerful supercomputer, VSC-4, went into operation this past December. A tidy, densely woven network of pipes, cables, and panels display the mechanisms required to keep this machine running smoothly.

The supercomputer’s previous incarnation, VSC-3, which is still in operation, is slightly more old school, bringing to mind a more dystopian version of a “supercomputer”: In a quieter, even warmer room, the processor panels sit in vats of oil wicking up along a hodgepodge of multicolor cables and seeping into row upon row of otherwise ordinary-looking outlets.

“Watch your step,” Herbert Störi told us, with a mischievous grin, “the oil stains.”

Oil might not be the first substance one pictures for a high-tech operation. But submersion in oil is still considered a state-of-the-art method for one of the most difficult aspects of running a supercomputer – cooling it down. VSC-3+, even louder and bigger than its successors, is cooled with air. 

“Old computer centers used as much energy for cooling the computers as they did for the computers,” Störi explained loudly, straining to be heard above VSC-3+.

Using fluids like oil or water is actually much more energy-efficient. The €8 million computer uses a network of copper pipes which cool every individual chip. The specially formulated water running through them travels up a loop to the roof, where the water is cooled down by air then travels back down, reducing the energy needed for cooling.

Störi, 68, was among the first professors from a handful of universities that proposed the idea of acquiring a supercomputer for Austria back in 2009. VSC is now jointly funded and operated among five universities. Ranked the 82nd most powerful computer in the world, VSC-4’s extraordinary computational capacity can be used for solid-state quantum physics calculations, medical simulations, or predicting weather conditions caused by climate change.  

Janima Nam
Janima Nam
Janima Nam is a freelance journalist, translator, and editor living in Vienna. She has a BFA in film from New York University and a Masters degree (MA) from the London Consortium in Interdisciplinary Studies.

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