Focal Point: NASA Ames Research Center

Release Date: January 15, 2007 | Last Updated Date: January 15, 2007

Columbia Supercomputer
The Columbia supercomputer at NASA Ames Research Center is still one of the most powerful computers in the world.

Three-dimensional computer graphic imagery has become commonplace in the entertainment industry, not to mention engineering, manufacturing, and medicine. The widespread use of 3-D computer graphics and visualization technology stems from the founding of Silicon Graphics, Inc (SGI) by former NASA Ames contractor James Clark. NASA Ames was its first major customer, and Ames programmers worked with SGI to develop the sophisticated software packages engineers needed for aerodynamic simulation and design. This mutually beneficial partnership has continued ever since, culminating with the installation at NASA Ames of the Columbia supercomputer in 2003; built from 20 SGI Altix 3700 supercomputers; at the time it was installed, it was the world’s fastest supercomputer. Today, Columbia is used for complex aeronautical simulations, global warming studies, and supernova simulations. In addition, innovative leaders of the entertainment industry quickly perceived the creative potential of the new computer technology for special effects and animation. Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic started using increasingly powerful SGI workstations in the 1980s; by the 1990s, Disney Studios, Pixar Animation, Dreamworks, and Pacific Data Images followed suit, helping Silicon Graphics gross over $2 billion annually.