CHEYENNE - The future home of one of the world's largest supercomputers is almost complete outside Cheyenne.
Major construction at the National Center for Atmospheric Research-Wyoming Supercomputing Center is wrapping up this August, and crews will start to test the facility's infrastructure while administrators are set to select the supercomputer that will occupy the site this fall.
The center will allow scientists to run extremely complex computer models and processes to answer questions relating to climate change and weather forecasting, including the formation of hurricanes and tornadoes, and numerous other fields of scientific research.
Officials from NCAR, based in Boulder, Colo., the University of Wyoming (UW), the Wyoming Business Council and other partners and supporters, including Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, participated in a site tour on June 10.
"To say you have one of the fastest computers in the world is a great message," Mead said.
NCAR began operations in 1960 as a program of the National Science Foundation (NSF) managed by the nonprofit University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR). At the time, it funded the creation of NCAR in Boulder, NSF itself had been in existence only 10 years.
According to the center's webpage, NCAR and university scientists work together on research topics in atmospheric chemistry, climate, cloud physics and storms, weather hazards to aviation, and interactions between the sun and Earth. In all of these areas, scientists are looking closely at the role of humans in both creating climate change and responding to severe weather occurrences.
NCAR currently houses several supercomputers at its Mesa Laboratory in Boulder, but the Wyoming center will increase the agency's computing capabilities by 15 to 20 times. The massive new supercomputer also will benefit UW researchers and students who will get a substantial share of the computing resource.Building it up
Construction began in June 2010, after NCAR and its managing agency, UCAR, decided in 2007 to locate the supercomputer center in Wyoming instead of Boulder.
"Wyoming won hands down in the competition, and that's why we're here today," said Rick Anthes, UCAR president.
Some cost factors swayed the 2007 decision, including $20 million contributions from the state of Wyoming and UW, the donated 26.4-acre site space in the North Range Business Park from Cheyenne LEADS, the economic development group for Cheyenne and Laramie County, and cheap electric costs through the utility, Cheyenne Light, Fuel & Power.
"It's as good an example as you'll ever see of industry, government and higher education working together," said UW President Tom Buchanan.
The proposition now has become a strategy for Wyoming business leaders. The local climate, the state's broadband services and cheap power resources all helped Wyoming attract the center out of Colorado. The network of partners is marketing those same amenities to woo other data centers.
"We have at least half a dozen serious conversations going on now with companies that are looking at data-center expansion here in Wyoming," said Bob Jensen, Wyoming Business Council CEO. "We have all the pieces."Keeping it green
The $70 million-building will take advantage of the region's cool and dry climate to optimize supercomputer operations. Data centers in other areas often rely on massive heating and chilling systems, but the climate and elevation of the Front Range of Wyoming minimizes the need for intensive systems.
The Wyoming center will discharge no water to treatment plants, and the facility's raised and vented floors also will increase energy efficiency, helping to meet the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED Gold building standards. At least 10 percent of the facility's power will come from wind energy, a proportion that could increase over time.
NCAR and its design partners also have built the center to accommodate future computer technology innovation and growth, a concept known as "future proofing" that should allow technology that doesn't yet exist to be incorporated when it becomes available.
Anke Kamrath, the operations and services director for the Computational and Information Systems Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, is leading the search for the supercomputer. She said the new system will operate on the "petaFLOP" scale, meaning it can process a quadrillion (that's one thousand million million) floating point operations, or math calculations, per second.
The supercomputer will cost another $25 million to $30 million, with a share of that money coming from the National Science Foundation. Kamrath and other officials expect to choose a supercomputer by this fall, which would then be ready for testing in early 2012. Full operations should start in the summer of next year, with about 25 employees expected to be on site for maintenance and security. Let the research begin
Once the supercomputer center opens, scientists will utilize the facilities for inquiries into climate science, air pollution and atmospheric chemistry, aviation safety, seismology, and many other research fields. In terms of studying hurricanes and tornadoes, the supercomputer should be able to model and simulate high-resolution systems that allow researchers to look at an individual storm cloud.
"We might not realize it, but we are all users of information that has come from research conducted on supercomputers," said NCAR Director Roger Wakimoto, in an agency press release. "If severe drought or flooding is expected to hit a region, then residents, farmers and businesses need to know in advance. If a solar storm is likely to hit Earth, telecommunications companies need to be prepared for disrupted satellite communications and power companies need to monitor the electrical grid.
"Even tomorrow's high and low temperatures or whether it might rain or snow are based on simulations developed on supercomputers. Advanced warning of potential disasters can protect lives and livelihoods."
Bryan Shader, a UW mathematics professor and special assistant to the vice president of research, jokes that the school's share of the facilities allows scientists and students to use the supercomputer one day a week: "We get it on Tuesdays," he quipped.
Under the agreement that brought the center to Cheyenne, the university will provide $1 million each year for 20 years and, in exchange, university researchers can claim 20 percent of the supercomputing resource. Shader said the school will use its access to the powerful tool to leverage collaborations with other colleges. Otherwise, universities must make agreements through NCAR if scientists want to run models at the facility.
Wyoming administrators are already identifying research projects being done in university labs that can be scaled up to take advantage of the supercomputer's capabilities. The considerable access to the NCAR center also will allow the school to build on recent efforts to enhance its reputation and recruitment in computational science and related fields.
"For the last 15 years, we've been trying to develop resources in scientific computing," Shader said. "This now gives us a tier-one resource, and plugs in faculty with NCAR."Joshua Zaffos is a freelance writer who works for our sister publication, the
Northern Colorado Business Report.