Atmospheric Center's Supercomputer Not Ready For Prime Time - InformationWeek

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Atmospheric Center's Supercomputer Not Ready For Prime Time

National Center For Atmospheric Research employs its new IBM eServer Blue Gene supercomputer to evaluate applications, not to forecast weather. Immature technology requires extensive experimentation before system can be deployed for production, official says.

Richard Loft is impressed with the speed of the new IBM eServer Blue Gene supercomputer the National Center for Atmospheric Research installed a month ago. Just one rack of 1,024 nodes can handle 4.6 trillion calculations a second, based on the Linpac benchmark, says Loft, deputy director of the center's scientific computing division. That's faster than the center's current supercomputer, an IBM P690, which has a benchmark of 4.2 teraflops but uses 50 racks to achieve that speed.

Such high speed offered by Blue Gene could immensely improve the accuracy of the computer simulations the center employs for weather forecasting and climate modeling. But Blue Gene isn't about to replace the P690. Blue Gene doesn't even having a queuing system. "The immaturity of the technology means we need to develop a number of things before we can use it in production," Loft says.

The center will spend the next six months to a year to determine whether Blue Gene is ready to be used in production, testing the supercomputer to see, for instance, how many simultaneous applications it can handle. "Can it get real work done?" Loft asks. "We need to see if it is reliable."

Working with their partners from the University of Colorado, which uses the technology to simulate flight conditions to design aircraft, computer scientists and engineers at the center's headquarters in Boulder, Colo., will try out new schemes to determine how the supercomputer handles atmospheric and aerodynamic applications, then compare the results to the legacy system. Loft characterizes the Blue Gene being tested as a "workhorse model," and if the experiment proves successful, the center likely would order a new model of Blue Gene for production.

According to the Web site Top 500, which tracks supercomputer processing speeds, a multirack version of Blue Gene at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories is rated the world's fastest computer with a speed of 70.72 trillion computations a second. In second place is SGI Altix/Voltaire's Columbia, at 51.87 teraflops. One-time leader Earth Simulator, manufactured by NEC Corp. and operated by the Japanese government, ranks third, at 35.86 teraflops.

At a height of 6 feet and a footprint of 3 square feet, Blue Gene is more compact than most supercomputers. It also offers power-saving features.

Stacey Quandt, senior business analyst at IT advisory firm Robert Frances Group, says implementing Blue Gene is significant because it not only allows the atmospheric center to significantly slash operating expenses thanks to the system's energy-saving features and small footprint, but more importantly its processing speed will let scientists achieve breakthrough climate research because of the supercomputer's ability to handle large data sets.

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