Supercomputer Vs Mainframe Computer – Know the Difference

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Although much larger in size, mainframe computers are much smaller than supercomputers. But, it’s not just about size. It is about their efficiency, performance, ability, and many other things.

For a quick comparison, supercomputers focus on speed. It’s all about how quickly the computer can compute complex math. On the other hand, a mainframe computer is built to work as a server or a database processor for large organizations.

Care to learn more? Continue reading below to learn more about mainframes vs supercomputers.

Supercomputer Vs Mainframe Computer
Supercomputer Vs Mainframe Computer

What’s a Supercomputer?

Talking about Supercomputer vs mainframe computer, Basically, a supercomputer is a computer with an unbelievable high level of performance compared to a general personal computer or laptop or desktop. For example Tianhe 1 & 2, Cray TITAN,  IBM Sequoia, etc. are the leading supercomputers of the world now.

What’s a Mainframe Computer?

On the other hand, a mainframe computer is a big sized module that is used to run databases smoothly and as a storehouse of information.  It handles bulk data processing, statistics, and analysis them.
Today we will be differentiating between the supercomputer and the mainframe computer on the basis of the following fields.

Difference Between Mainframe and Supercomputer

In spite of having many similarities, a supercomputer and mainframe computer have many dissimilarities. Let’s dig into them!


When it comes to size, a supercomputer generally takes as much as a place of two or more basketball grounds. As it is based on linear connections of CPUs, a huge amount of space is needed for a huge collection of CPUs. As an example, World’s biggest supercomputer the mighty “Sunway Taihu Light” has 10649600 central processing units connected and running simultaneously.
A mainframe computer is far far bigger than a supercomputer. As a mainframe computer is used as a database controller, it may need a space of nearly 10000 square feet! These typical server mainframe computers are not bound to any size. In this regard, the “SAGE” built by IBM must be mentioned.
This was the world’s first mainframe computer. Surprisingly, it was connected by 20 different centers, which were 1 acre each. The total setup contained 175000 transistors,60000 vacuum tubes, 13000 transistors, and 256-kilobytes of magnetic ram! But, with modern technology, the size has shrunk, but still, mainframe computers require huge spaces for their data center.


Memory is mainly of two types, RAM & ROM. A supercomputer must have a huge memory. In contrast to our daily life computers, a supercomputer has a massive level of RAM & ROM. For example, The Sunway Taihu Light has a RAM of 1.31 PB which is equivalent to 1310000 gigabytes! And the ROM is 20PB (20000000 gigabytes)!
Now talking about mainframe computers, they don’t have a specific amount of memory. As mainframe computers are for databases, they have huge storage options. Often, huge buildings or floors of tall buildings are used to store the databases of mainframe computers. So, it varies with the size and quantity of the data.

Calculation Power

The performance of a supercomputer is measured in floating-point operations per second (FLOPS) unit. The very first Supercomputer was built in 1960.  The CDC 6600, with a speed of 500 kiloflops. But the first successful supercomputer built was the CREY-1, built-in 1976. It had a speed of 1.9 Gigaflops!
It might look funny that those supercomputers were not as powerful as our today’s normal desktops, but they played a vital role in their time. The fastest supercomputer at this moment is the Sunway Taihu light, with a Linpack benchmark score of 93000 trillion (93 PETA ) calculation speeds per second! China and the USA are the leading supercomputer producers.
One important thing about these computers is, they are operated in the LINUX operating system. The speed in a mainframe computer is measured in MIPS, which stands for Million Instruction per Second. It is a method for measuring raw speed in a mainframe computer. Whereas a personal computer operates at  3-4 MIPS, a mainframe computer processes at 70-100 MIPS.
One surprising fact about the mainframe computer is they can run several operating systems at once. The very first operating system for the mainframe computer was the z/OS which was invented by IBM.  The last mainframe computer built was the T-REX by IBM in 2003. It had 32 processors. It would process 450 million E-business transactions a day! Also, it was capable of managing several virtual Linux servers at a time!

Working principle

Supercomputers gain their massive speed by “parallel computing”. A supercomputer is not just a CPU, it is a connection of millions of CPUs. All the CPUs are connected in parallel. For example, The Taihulight has 40960 processing modules. Each with 260 processor cores. So, the ultimate result is, the TaihuLight is a computer with 10,649,600 cores!
In mainframe computing, they use either parallel Sysplex or shared DASD. As they have to process a huge I/O data at once, they used subsidiary hardware known as a channel or, peripheral processors. Basically, the main focus of a mainframe computer is in its database, not on faster speed like the supercomputers.

Energy Consumption

The cooling system and power supply of a supercomputer are one of the most important parts of it.  The average temperature at any supercomputer center is nearly zero degrees! To operate the computer and keep this temperature a lot of power is needed. It is approximate that Sunway Taihulight uses 15.3 MW of power.
Every year around 9 million dollars is spent in the maintenance of this gigantic computer. The mainframe computer is a server computer. So, it gets quite hot. In previous years, directly cold water was flown inside the servers to keep the database cool. With modern technology the size has shrunk, so did the power consumption. A 50000 square feet data center needs approximately 5MW of power which is very less in contrast to a supercomputer.

Fields of UseSuper

Computers have reached enormous fields. The main use of these is in computational science. In the last few decades, these massive computers are being used in the quantum analysis, weather forecasting, climate research, oil and gas exploration, molecular modeling, medical science, data centers, physical simulations.
Surprisingly with the help of supercomputers, scientists have been able to simulate the big bang, the aerodynamics of aircraft, even the fission and fusion reaction of nuclear weapons! Another great field where a supercomputer works at its best is “Cryptanalysis“  Which means decoding any cyphered text or key! Supercomputers are also used for communicating with the satellites & rockets.

On the other hand, a mainframe computer handles bulk data. It is used as servers in big offices, industries. It is integrated with additional security, which ensures data safety. These computers have a great impact on the past military and aviation technologies. Now, these computers are fixed for database management. Census, industry, consumer statistics, enterprise resource planning, and transition processing are the main uses of a mainframe computer.

Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

What is more powerful than a supercomputer?

Quantum computer is currently the fastest computer made by humans. Not only Quantum computer is faster and more powerful, it is more energy efficient as well.

How much RAM do supercomputers have?

It varies. But for reference, Titan, the supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, has more than 750000 gigabytes of RAM.

Why do mainframes still exist?

They exist because of the cost-effective computing power they offer. Apart from scientific and militart research, no organization actually need a supercomputer.


These were some basic differences between a supercomputer and a mainframe computer. So, it can be said by the above discussion that, the mainframe computer was the brainchild of the supercomputer concept. With the advancement of technology, mainframe computers have been sent to a museum. But, looking at today’s personal computers or supercomputers or, even mobiles, it can be easily felt, how important the invention of the mainframe computer was!

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