IBM supercomputer on tap for climate, weather research

New 12Tflop supercomputer to be installed at the National Center for Atmospheric Research

A powerful new IBM supercomputer will soon be put to use at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, where it is expected to dramatically bolster the group's ability to model and predict climate changes, improve weather forecasting and predict the spread of wildfires.

In an announcement today, IBM said it will start assembling the new 12Tflop (12 trillion floating-point operations per second) supercomputer next month at NCAR's headquarters in Colorado, U.S. It will go online in February after a period of testing and configuring. IBM did not release the price for the machine, the first of two new supercomputers to be built in phases for NCAR through 2008.

Tom Engel, a high performance computing specialist at NCAR, said the new hardware -- nicknamed Blueice -- includes 872 dual-core IBM Power5+ 1.9 GHz CPUs, for a total of 1,744 CPUs in a 10-rack cluster. Blueice is four times more powerful than "Bluesky," the IBM supercomputer it will supplement.

"The scientists here are always excited about having bigger and better computers," Engel said. "We just wish we had more money to buy them more."

NCAR currently has 15Tflops of computing power available to it through Bluesky and a sister IBM supercomputer, known as Bluevista, Engel said. In 2008, the second phase of the hardware upgrade at NCAR will add a 57Tflop supercomputer. The two phases are part of the Integrated Computing Environment for Scientific Simulation infrastructure being built at NCAR.

A key reason for using supercomputers is to advance the study of weather and climate, Engel said. Some of that work involves the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a Geneva-based international group set up to assess scientific, technical and socio-economic data related to global climate change and its potential impacts.

"Blueice will allow NCAR to make improvements on those models to add more atmospheric chemistry and ... to improve the accuracy of predictions for climate change," Engel said. "Those are the kinds of things these new supercomputers are going to allow NCAR scientists to do."

It will also assist in predicting the spread of wildfires such as those in California that last week killed five firefighters overrun by out-of-control flames. The wildfire modeling be used to help protect firefighters by better predicting how fires might travel depending on wind and topography, he said.

Each of the 10 refrigerator-sized racks burns 40 kilowatts (KW) of power continuously, about the same amount as the much-less powerful Bluesky machine. By comparison, a typical household in the U.S. burns about 10 KW of power continuously, Engel said. Blueice is also more space-efficient, taking up just a fifth of the floor space used by Bluesky.

David Turek, vice president of deep computing at IBM, said Blueice will have 9.2TB of memory, 150TB of disk storage and a high-performance switch as an interconnect between all the nodes of the machine.

NCAR has about 1,200 scientist and researchers at its facility, which is one of 36 Federally Funded Research and Development Centers. NCAR's primary funding sponsor is the National Science Foundation and it is managed by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a non-profit consortium of universities.

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