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NASA Upgrades Pleiades Supercomputer

Supercomputer tackles NASA's most complex challenges, from understanding solar flares to designing new space vehicles.

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Pleiades, the supercomputer that runs complex modeling and simulation for many of NASA's most challenging, complex projects, just got an upgrade that will enable it to keep up with the growing needs of agency scientists.

"As we move toward NASA's next phase in advanced computing, Pleiades must be able to handle the increasing requirements of more than 1,200 users across the country who rely on the system to perform their large, complex calculations," said Rupak Biswas, chief of the NASA Advanced Supercomputing (NAS) division at Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "Right now, for example, the system is being used to improve our understanding of how solar flares and other space weather events can affect critical technologies on Earth. Pleiades also plays a key role in producing high-fidelity simulations used for possible vehicle designs such as NASA's upcoming Space Launch System."

The expansion completed in June has increased Pleiades' sustained performance rate by 14%, to 1.24 petaflops, or a quadrillion calculations per second. This is the eighth upgrade to the supercomputer since its 2008 installation. Pleiades was manufactured by Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI).

It took three months' preparation for the upgrade to be completed, said NASA spokeswoman Jill Dunbar.

"NAS division engineers devised an ingenious cable-lift system to facilitate removal of older racks located in the middle of the computer floor," Dunbar said. The engineers designed and installed a structure that attached to the tops of adjacent racks for anchorage, so the lift could operate without interrupting Pleiades at work, she said. Pleiades was taken offline for only five days to install and test the new systems.

[ What can NASA teach IT about analyzing big data? See NASA Blue Marble Project: Visual Data Lessons. ]

Engineers removed 28 Intel Harpertown compute racks to make room for new Intel Sandy Bridge racks. They updated what NASA described as the largest InfiniBand network in the world, with 65 miles of cabling, by updating the InfiniBand software; the new release provides support for data speeds of 54 Gbps. In addition, four Westmere nodes were quadrupled to 96 GB of memory, and another 16 nodes were doubled to 48 GB.

Recently, NASA scientists have been using Pleiades to generate the Bolshoi cosmological simulation to help explain how galaxies and the large-scale structure of the universe have evolved over billions of years. The agency described it as the largest simulation of its kind run to date.

The supercomputer system also is processing massive amounts of star data gathered from NASA's Kepler spacecraft, leading to the discovery of new Earth-sized planets in the Milky Way galaxy. The upgrade will enable Pleiades to be used on complex challenges like these even more quickly, using ever bigger data sets.

The Office of Management and Budget demands that federal agencies tap into a more efficient IT delivery model. The new Shared Services Mandate issue of InformationWeek Government explains how they're doing it. Also in this issue: Uncle Sam should develop an IT savings dashboard that shows the returns on its multibillion-dollar IT investment. (Free registration required.)

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