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Winter 1998

MMM multiplies its raw computing power by ten--at no direct cost to UCAR

by Anatta

NCAR's Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology Division has upped its computing power ten times at no direct cost to UCAR through an innovative loan arrangement with Compaq Computer Corporation and iMSC Corporation, a computer consulting firm. In October, MMM received 42 new workstations and 7 high-end, multiprocessor AlphaServers worth $8.7 million from Compaq. IMSC originated the loan with Digital Equipment Corporation, which was recently acquired by Compaq.

MMM will use this increase in its raw computing power primarily to develop further the NCAR/Pennsylvania State University MM5 model, the well-known weather research and forecasting tool. The division expects to run the MM5 at a resolution not previously possible for simulating smaller-scale atmospheric features such as thunderstorms. According to MMM director Robert Gall, the new hardware will have a "huge" impact on the group's work on a vital data assimilation program, which will ultimately benefit the entire atmospheric science community.

The AlphaServers, which have been on the market since 1991, are the chief products in Compaq's high-performance computing division. At its aggregate peak, the group of AlphaServers and Alpha workstations at MMM could in theory deliver 118 gigaflops (118 billion floating-point operations per second). In practice, however, each of the single-processor workstations--which now have the same 600 MHz chips as the multiprocessor servers--runs the MM5 code at approximately 200 megaflops.

IMSC teamed with six Colorado investors to form the Advanced Research Alliance. ARA purchased the hardware at a substantial discount from Compaq and then loaned it to MMM. In exchange, MMM will test and evaluate the systems and provide input to iMSC and Compaq for reconfiguring and redesigning the systems for scientific applications. At specified times during the three-year loan period, iMSC will upgrade the hardware (through steps such as chip replacements) and ARA will sell the used components. In 2001, ARA will sell the entire set of computers. This collaboration will result in a win-win-win situation for the three parties. ARA will have profited from its sales, Compaq will have obtained exposure and proof-of-performance for its high-end product line, and MMM will have made otherwise impossible scientific leaps through the use of the computers.

During the three years of the NCAR loan, iMSC will use a similar suite of Compaq machines to refine a version of MM5 that can be run by nonscientists on the Windows NT operating system. This version can be used by business and industry decision makers, government emergency managers, and even high school students.

"We're all very excited" about the deal, says Gall. "At a time when research dollars and computer allocations are harder to come by, an opportunity like this can have a tremendous beneficial impact on our work."


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