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What Do New Supercomputers Mean for Insurance Strategy?

Leaps in processing power herald the era of Big Data and foreshadow new competitive battlefields for the information-driven business of insurance.

The U.S. government's Oak Ridge National Laboratory is building a new supercomputer for its Department of Energy (DOE) supercomputer facility. The new machine will be built by Cray (Seattle), with Nvidia (Santa Clara, Calif.) GPUs (graphics processing units). The new Titan Cray XK6 supercomputer may deliver up to 20 petaflops - 20x a thousand trillion floating point operations per second - of performance at his peak, Elizabeth Montalbano of InformationWeek reports.

The term "supercomputer" is almost old-fashioned now, conjuring up decades-old announcements of a new technology, analogous to the introduction of the internal combustion engine to a horse-drawn world. But those old announcements presaged staggering changes in commerce and culture, and so do the new breed of petaflop computers.

Titan will surpass Oak Ridge's existing Jaguar supercomputer, which is the third most powerful supercomputer in existence, behind others in Japan and China, respectively. All of the top 10 supercomputers in the world today are in the petaflop range.

The InformationWeek article reports that Oak Ridge's DOE supercomputing facility plans to use Titan in general, esoteric-sounding pursuits, echoing the supercomputer announcements of old. The facility envisions a swath of research endeavors embracing material science, energy technology medical research and geoscience.

"All areas of science can benefit from this substantial increase in computing power, opening the doors for new discoveries that so far have been out of reach," said Jeff Nichols, associate laboratory director for Computing and Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge, in a statement.

Behind these generalities lurks a stark reality that will profoundly influence how business is eventually run, and the insurance business more than others. The proliferation of petaflop computing capabilities signals the imminence of the era of Big Data, which will in turn enable a new level of data processing and analysis that will cause qualitative differences in the way IT shapes society.

Insurers are only beginning to unify their processing environments and find their IT stride. The advent of Big Data means that they can't rest on their computing laurels but must immediately start engaging on a new information processing battlefield. We've been talking for the last half-decade about the possibility of "Competing on Analytics," but now the time has come where real winners and losers are starting to emerge.

The first time business people heard the term "supercomputer" they probably wondered how specialized scientists and engineers would use them, but nobody could have envisioned their implications for business a couple of decades before the Internet and the explosion of e-commerce. Now we're seeing another major jump in the way information can be processed, and we can already seen the antecedents of new ways of doing business. The era of Big Data is underway, and all insurers need to evaluate what it means for their essentially information-driven business.

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio

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