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New computing power for geosciences

Proposed center would be the computational equivalent of the Hubble telescope


by David Hosansky and Bob Henson

Data Center
An artist's rendition of the proposed new supercomputing center for geosciences. (Courtesy The Crosby Group.)

With the Mesa Lab almost at its limit for providing electricity and floor space for increasingly powerful supercomputers, NCAR has been scouting alternative sites for new generations of machines. But instead of focusing on a supercomputing facility purely for atmospheric scientists, the organization has started to work with NSF and potential partners in academia and industry to develop a national supercomputing center that would serve the entire geosciences community.

Scientists envision an expandable facility that would eventually house supercomputers with peak speeds in excess of one petaflop (1015 operations per second). In contrast, today's supercomputers have peak speeds that are measured in teraflops, or trillions of operations per second. The new facility will be designed with sufficient flexibility to accommodate many generations of increasingly powerful machines to support cutting-edge geoscience research.

"This is extremely important, probably the number-one UCAR/NCAR priority," explained UCAR president Rick Anthes at a recent meeting of the UCAR Management Committee (UMC). "It is a science-driven project and is exactly what a national center should be doing." UCAR plans to submit its prospectus for such a center to NSF this summer.

NSF is contemplating several computing centers as part of its strategic plan for strengthening cyberinfrastructure for the sciences. The most recent NSF plan calls for one new overarching computing center for NSF as well as several satellite centers, most likely including the one being planned in conjunction with NCAR.

The new geosciences facility would be governed by a community consortium. Among the facility's possible locations is the Colorado Front Range. The center would be designed with 20,000 square feet of raised-floor computer space, eventually increased to 60,000 square feet. It would be located on a 10- to 15-acre site and powered by up to 24 megawatts of electricity depending on the choice of computers and their power requirements.

Such a center would lead to greatly expanded scientific computing capability. For example, atmospheric researchers would be able to model regional climate on such a fine scale that they could capture individual mountain ranges and ocean currents. They could also fully integrate climate and weather models and simulate detailed cloud, ocean, land, and ice processes.

The center's supercomputers would enable geoscientists to better predict seismic activity and glean insights into Earth's inner core. In addition, researchers would use the center to assimilate data from increasingly sophisticated instruments into computer models to learn more about Earth's weather and climate, as well as biogeochemical and biogeophysical processes and space physics.

A presentation assembled by NCAR and UCAR staffers working on the project describes the facility as "a computational equivalent of the Hubble telescope for geoscience simulation."

The timeline

The goal is to have the new center operational by 2009. However, a number of issues must first be tackled:

  • How should the facility be governed? NCAR has been discussing the operation of the facility with potential partners in government, industry, and academia. It's possible that a broad consortium of organizations may manage the center.

  • How will it be financed? The facility is expected to cost between $40 to $75 million to build, and $15 million a year to operate (about twice the budget to operate NCAR's current suite of supercomputers). Funding may come from a mix of government and private sector sources.

  • An NCAR project committee, appointed by NCAR director Tim Killeen and co-chaired by Lawrence Buja and Peter Fox, is studying the various issues. The committee is consulting with a blue-ribbon panel of NSF community scientists from across the geosciences. "It's been an exhilarating experience
    working with so many of the nation's top scientists and the talented experts here to develop this important facility," Buja says.
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