Today's large finite element simulations require parallel algorithms to scale on clusters with thousands or tens of thousands of processor cores. We present data structures and algorithms to take advantage of the power of high performance computers in generic finite element codes. Existing generic finite element libraries often restrict the parallelization to parallel linear algebra routines. This is a limiting factor when solving on more than a few hundreds of cores. We describe routines for distributed storage of all major components coupled with efficient, scalable algorithms. We give an overview of our effort to enable the modern and generic finite element library deal.II to take advantage of the power of large clusters. In particular, we describe the construction of a distributed mesh and develop algorithms to fully parallelize the finite element calculation. Numerical results demonstrate good scalability. © 2010 Springer-Verlag.