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Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the University of Wyoming (UW), working with colleagues around the country, will use the NWSC to study Earth system processes that are of critical importance to society. These include severe weather, climate change, oceanography, air quality, space weather, computational science, energy production, and carbon sequestration. By gaining a better understanding of Earth systems, scientists can provide vital information to decision makers and emergency managers to reduce vulnerability to major storms, air pollution, changes in climate, and geomagnetic storms in the upper atmosphere that can disrupt communications and other technological systems.
The atmosphere and Earth system are highly complex. Scientists need to conduct an extraordinary number of calculations to answer such questions as the likely locations of the most damaging winds in a hurricane or the subsurface forces in the Sun that can cause geomagnetic storms on Earth. As supercomputers become increasingly powerful, scientists can study these processes in more detail, viewing smaller structures such as areas of rotation that can spawn tornadoes within a larger thunderstorm.
NCAR scientists will continue to be based in Boulder. Their colleagues around the world will access the NWSC remotely. Thanks to the Internet and the rapid transmission of data through fiber optic cables and other means, scientists can use supercomputers located far away. In fact, NCAR scientists already conduct some of their research on supercomputers in other states or even overseas.
Once scientists confirm their findings, they submit their studies to peer-reviewed scientific journals. If studies pass the scrutiny of other scientists and journal editors, they are published. Once published, the research helps advance science worldwide and inform policy makers.
Scientists will begin using the supercomputer as soon as it is fully tested, in the fall of 2012. The scientists may begin getting preliminary results within a few weeks. However, it can be months or even a year or two before they publish their findings in scientific journals because they need to confirm the results, write papers, and submit them to reviews by other scientists.
Most of the data sets used by NCAR scientists are freely available to anyone. The code for the computer models developed at NCAR, such as the Community Climate System Model (which is used for climate change research) is freely available on the Web. However, scientists may not be able to share information drawn from data that belongs to a third party that has not authorized its release. In addition, preliminary results are generally not released until they have been confirmed.
NCAR also has an open access policy requiring that peer-reviewed research published by its scientific and technical staff in scientific journals be made publicly available online through its institutional repository.
The research will benefit all of society by advancing our understanding of severe weather, climate change, air quality, geomagnetic storms, and atmospheric chemistry. In addition, certain work will be targeted at helping particular regions. For example, atmospheric scientists increasingly are studying the regional impact of climate change. Toward this end, NCAR and its research collaborators are using a blend of regional and global computer models to simulate temperature, precipitation, and other variables across the U.S. West in more detail than previously available. This work will shed light on such questions as future variability in mountain snowpack and the impact of changing precipitation on agriculture. In addition, UW’s specific research plans include standard groundwater and deep aquifer hydrology, artificial seismic analysis, and regional climate analysis to include headwater zones.
Supercomputing power is increasing all the time. Upon installation, the NWSC supercomputer, which is named Yellowstone, is expected to rank among the world’s top 25 for speed, but the rankings of supercomputers are constantly changing as ever-faster machines are developed. Yellowstone is a 1.5 petaflops supercomputer, which means it can perform 1.5 quadrillion operations per second.
After a competitive open procurement process, NCAR selected IBM to build key components of the NWSC’s first supercomputer. The IBM components consist of a massive central resource for file and data storage, a high performance computational cluster, and a resource for visualizing the data.
As supercomputers become faster and more powerful, they require more electricity, largely for their cooling systems. During initial testing, Yellowstone consumed approximately 1.6 megawatts of electricity. The NWSC will initially derive 10 percent of its power from wind energy, with the option to increase that percentage. Of the energy used by the NWSC, 92 percent will go directly to supercomputing as opposed to office space and other non-computing resources. Many measures enable this efficiency, including capitalizing on Wyoming’s naturally cool climate, which will allow the NWSC to use outside air for cooling during much of the year. For more information about energy efficiency and sustainability efforts, see our article on the green technology in use of the NWSC.
ThePower Usage Effectiveness (PUE) Index reflects how much of the facility's power consumption is used for actual computing, as opposed to support functions like cooling. PUE is defined as the ratio of the total power consumed by a supercomputing center to the power consumed by the information technology equipment of the facility.
While the Mesa Lab’s supercomputing center is highly efficient, with a PUE index of 1.55:1, it cannot compare to a newly designed facility. The NWSC supercomputer is expected to be about 20 times more powerful than the Mesa Lab supercomputers while requiring only about three times more power. Put another way, the NWSC will be four times as efficient as the Mesa Lab. Over time, the greater efficiency is likely to become even more pronounced as vendors design increasingly efficient supercomputers.
NCAR was a pioneer in the use of supercomputers, beginning with a Control Data Corporation 6600 in 1966 that is believed to be the first machine designated as a supercomputer. It offered the fastest clock speed for its day (100 nanoseconds). NCAR has subsequently installed increasingly powerful supercomputers from Cray Research, SGI, IBM, and other companies. NCAR supercomputers have often ranked among the fastest 50 in the world.
The Mesa Lab may continue to house smaller supercomputers. However, the bulk of NCAR’s supercomputing research will be conducted at the NWSC.
The NWSC is the result of a partnership between University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), the State of Wyoming, the University of Wyoming, Cheyenne LEADS, Wyoming Business Council, Cheyenne Light, Fuel & Power Company. The NWSC is operated by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) under the sponsorship of the National Science Foundation.
A modern smartphone is far more powerful than NCAR’s first supercomputer, known as the Cray-1A, acquired in 1977. Each replacement machine has been many times more powerful than its predecessor. Computer technology usually doubles in power about every 18 months, a rate of growth known as Moore’s Law.