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Humanities High Performance Computing Resource

March 15, 2012 | By NEH Staff

What is "Humanities High-Performance Computing"?

The term "high performance computing" (HPC) is often used interchangeably with "supercomputing." It refers to very fast computers, capable of performing calculations many times faster than standard desktop machines. High Performance Computing is used mainly by scientific disciplines for processing huge amounts of data, data mining, and simulation. That is, using an enormous amount of data to simulate a physical object or series of events. For example, scientists use HPC to simulate hurricanes; the auto industry uses HPC to simulate car crashes; the military uses HPC to simulate explosions. Because of the enormous speed available with HPC, tasks can be done that normal desktop PCs could never tackle.

So what do we mean by "HHPC?" Humanities High-Performance Computing (HHPC) refers to the use of high-performance machines for humanities and social science projects. Currently, only a small number of humanities scholars are taking advantage of high-performance computing. But just as the sciences have, over time, begun to tap the enormous potential of HPC, the humanities are beginning to as well. Humanities scholars often deal with large sets of unstructured data. This might take the form of historical newspapers, books, election data, archaeological fragments, audio or video contents, or a host of others. HHPC offers the humanist opportunities to sort through, mine, and better understand and visualize this data.

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The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) is the flagship scientific computing facility for the Office of Science in the U.S. Department of Energy. As one of the largest facilities in the world devoted to providing computational resources and expertise for basic scientific research, NERSC is a world leader in accelerating scientific discovery through computation. NERSC is located at Berkeley Lab in Berkeley, California.

If you are interested in applying for an allocation of computing hours at NERSC, please check out Applying for your First NERSC Allocation.


In order to encourage humanities scholars to take advantage of the computational and data storage capabilities of the nationwide XSEDE network (formerly "TeraGrid"), the National Science Foundation (NSF) is making accounts available to the humanities research community.

XSEDE is an open scientific discovery infrastructure combining leadership class resources at multiple partner sites to create an integrated, persistent computational resource.

To learn more about XSEDE, we recommend reading the XSEDE: What We Do guide.  New users may wish to apply for a Start-Up Allocation which is good for one year.  More experienced users can apply for a Research Allocation.  For details, please see the How to Get an Allocation page.  For information about training opportunities for how to take advantage of XSEDE, check out the user guides on the XSEDE website as well as training opportunities.  

The NEH sends its thanks to the NSF for making these resources available for humanities research.

NEH's Office of Digital Humanities Invites HHPC Projects

The ODH has funded numerous digital humanities projects that are using HPC systems or providing training on the use of HPC for the humanities. If you are interested in applying, please see our web page or get in touch!

NEH Workshop on HHPC

In July of 2007, NEH hosted a workshop on HHPC. We asked a number of leading scholars, computer scientists, and government agencies to spend a day with us in Washington to discuss the potential of HHPC. A report on this workshop is available now. In a nutshell, the group felt that there is a great deal of potential for HHPC, over the coming years, to be an important tool for some humanities scholarship. As a result, the NEH decided to publish this HHPC Resource Page to get more information about HHPC to the humanities community. We also hope to start a dialog with the scientific and computing community to see what collaborations might take place between scientists and humanists.

Over the coming months, NEH will be encouraging applications in the areas of HHPC as well as trying to promote training events to help humanities scholars and HPC experts learn more about one another and their projects.