Research organizations buy commercial supercomputing hardware

The National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado recently acquired a Blue Gene supercomputer from IBM to simulate ocean, weather and climate change.

Seeking a more powerful computer system for tracking the earth's climate, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), in collaboration with the University of Colorado, has acquired an IBM commercial Blue Gene supercomputer.

NCAR, one of the nation's leading climate research organizations, will deploy its single-rack Blue Gene to accelerate research in global climate changes, weather predictions, wildfires, geoturbulence and other critical subjects. The supercomputer will run programs simulating the ocean, weather and climate phenomena that impact agricultural output, heating oil prices and global warming.

"Climate change research is one policy-relevant field driving a need for more powerful computers to process complicated models of the Earth system," said NCAR director Tim Killeen, in a statement. "Improving weather forecasts, predicting toxic pollution flows and space weather are other areas where faster, more efficient supercomputers like Blue Gene are essential for U.S. scientists to remain in the forefront of earth science research."

According to Dave Turek, IBM's vice president of deep computing, the commercial Blue Gene has been deployed by an increasing number of customers in fields like astronomy, high energy physics, as well as for industrial applications since its release in November 2004.

The commercial version of Blue Gene is available from one to 64 racks, with 1024 dual-processor nodes per rack, and has a peak performance of 5.7 teraflops with a single full rack system. The machine is relatively compact, measuring six feet tall, three feet wide and three feet deep. As late as 1999, it took a space roughly the size of a football field to house a Blue Gene, but IBM cut the commercial version down to about the size of a closet for a computer that, according to Turek, is six times faster than any supercomputer available on the market back in 1999.

"It is a very versatile system whose appeal is broadening on a daily basis," Turek said. "This acquisition is a demonstration of faith [NCAR has] in the technology."

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The University of Colorado at Boulder campus, located just five miles from NCAR headquarters, intends to use the Blue Gene as an educational tool for its computer science graduate students. The university will install Lustre -- an experimental open source distributed parallel file system designed for send multiple streams for writing files -- and is looking at deploying the machine for aerospace and applied mathematics exercises.

NCAR and UC plan to work closely together on the machine, said Rich Loft, the deputy director of the scientific computing division at NCAR, a collaboration made possible by the way IBM has the machine set up.

"It is an extremely efficient and powerful machine. It's densely packed, highly scalable architecture," Loft said. "It is radical architecture with a fairly compatible software suite …that was appealing to us."

Big Blue and NCAR have been partners for the past five years. IBM has supplied NCAR with supercomputing technology, and members of NCAR advised IBM on its technology road map. Big Blue also donated some front-end technology to NCAR as part of the transaction.

The computing power offered by Blue Gene is a perfect fit for what NCAR is trying to do, Turek said, because any solution the center settled on had to provide a significant increase in computing speed.

"The real issue [for NCAR] is to radically reduce time for improved weather forecasts, and to look broadly at earth science to get a more refined picture of how the earth works," Turek said.

The National Science Foundation, NCAR's primary sponsor, provided the majority of the funding for the purchase.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Luke Meredith, News Writer

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