That’s not just a computer, it’s a supercomputer

Posted by on October 16, 2012 in Featured, Great Big World | Comments Off

Matthew Hirschland, communications director for the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, stands at the end of two rows of processors that make up a small part of the new Yellowstone supercomputer on the outskirts of Cheyenne, Wyo. on Monday, Oct. 15, 2012. A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the machine was held Monday, the supercomputer dedicated to earth sciences is among the world’s top 20 fastest. (AP Photo/Mead Gruver)

The supercomputer breathes like a beast, inhaling cool air and huffing out the heat of tens of thousands of processors.

Cables snake like veins around the IBM-made computer, dubbed “Yellowstone.” The roughly $30 million machine is the centerpiece of the newly opened National Center for Atmospheric Research-Wyoming Supercomputing Center in Cheyenne.

Within a matter of weeks, the scientists will unleash the beast’s computing power on projects so complex, they could only spring from nature:

  • What happens underground during an earthquake?
  • Where does rain flow when it falls from the sky?
  • How does the breeze flow around a hill and a wind turbine blade?

But for now, within a two-story, brightly lit cage, Yellowstone awaits.

The supercomputer is row after row of black, mesh frames — 100 racks in all — holding 72,288 processor cores. The 7-foot-tall rows stretch across the data center like library bookshelves. Yellowstone ranks in the top 20 of the world’s fastest supercomputers. Yet just like cars, cell phones and computers, the next generation of supercomputers will push Yellowstone down the rankings.

But for now, Yellowstone is fast — jaw-dropping fast. The supercomputer can compute at 1.5 petaflops, or 1.5 quadrillion calculations a second.

Picture a calculation as a gallon of milk. Now fill all the rivers of the world with milk. Now triple that amount.

There aren’t any keyboards or video displays around to operate the supercomputer. Most researchers will access the supercomputer from computers at their own research institutions.

Already 11 projects are lined up for the supercomputer, with work beginning in the next few weeks, said Roger Wakimoto, the center’s director.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research is one organization ready to get some use out of Yellowstone. It has used supercomputers since the 1970s, but Yellowstone is 30 times more powerful than NCAR’s supercomputer at its Mesa Laboratory in Boulder.

Reported by By JEREMY FUGLEBERG of the Star-Tribune from CHEYENNE, Wyo.