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What is a Vector Processor?

Benjamin N. Skinner
Benjamin N. Skinner

A vector processor is one of two different types of computer processors: vector and scalar. A vector processor differs from a scalar processor in that it performs calculations on a vector as a whole. A vector is a one dimensional array, or a single row of values, such as a list of numbers. A scalar processor works each of the numbers individually; it can do different things to many different numbers. A vector processor, on the other hand, performs the same process to all of the numbers at once.

This type of processor is more specialized than a scalar processor, which makes it the less popular choice for the average computer. An average computer performs a wide variety of tasks, and the fastest way to do many different types of tasks is with a scalar processor. That is because the processor can switch between tasks much faster. A vector processor is used in highly-specialized electronics, such as super computers. These processors are much more powerful when used for large scale problems. Small tasks, such as opening up a word document or playing a video, can be accomplished by a scalar processor faster than a vector processor.

Woman doing a handstand with a computer
Woman doing a handstand with a computer

There are other widespread uses for vector processors besides supercomputers. Vector processors are used in military applications as well. They are very good at encoding and decoding sonar, and radar signals, and can typically break a signal much faster than a scalar processor. These processors are also good at simulating different events such as weather patterns, physics tests, and anything else that requires a huge amount of number crunching.

Oftentimes there are a large number of vector processors being used in conjunction. These processors work well together, and with many processors tackling the same task, the time taken is dramatically reduced. That is how super computers work — a huge number of processors are connected together to solve a common problem.

Vector processors are an example of how highly-specialized devices function better at a specific task than a multi-purpose device. The vector processor was built specifically to crunch large amounts of data and is very efficient in doing so. Improvements in scalar technology, however — especially in terms of microprocessors — is causing an overall decline in the use of vector processors, even in super computers.

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