NWS launches next super-CPU buy

The National Weather Service plans to replace its supercomputer with a faster system that would allow for more accurate forecasting of hurricanes tornadoes blizzards and other severe storms.

The estimated $35.8 million acquisition would replace the existing 16-processor Cray Research Inc. C90 computer at NWS' National Centers for Environment Prediction (NCEP) with a system that is at least five times faster according to agency procurement documents. With more processing power NCEP will be able to run more complex weather models and provide more data to forecasters.

Power It Up

"We never have enough computer power " said John Zack president of Meso Inc. a Troy N.Y. company that provides specialized forecasts to farmers power companies and other industrial customers. "If you gave us 10 times what we have right now we'd eat it up overnight."

NCEP's current system installed in 1994 is running at 97 percent or more of its capacity and cannot support the more mathematically demanding models that meteorologists want to use according to information provided to vendors in a request for information issued late last month.

"We want to get the most for the dollars we have to spend " said Wayman Baker acting director of NCEP Central Operations Camp Springs Md.

The agency wants to buy a system that runs at a sustained speed of at least 30 gigaflops but projects a demand for 200 gigaflops by 2001.

Richard Grumm scientific operations officer with the NWS office in State College Pa. said the computer upgrade will be particularly helpful to meteorologists trying to predict precipitation including thunderstorms by increasing the resolution of forecasting models. "A lot of precipitation events are very small scale " he said and small storms such as thunderstorms do not show up in current simulations.Improved Accuracy

"As model scales get smaller instead of guessing we'll actually be able to see them " Grumm said. One performance measure that NCEP has set for the new system is to improve the accuracy of precipitation forecasts by 25 percent during the next three years.

"We'll be able to do a more accurate job in forecasting the track of hurricanes providing improved guidance for the airlines for their flight planning and providing improved guidance for severe weather " Baker said.

In tracking hurricanes Baker said the system will give forecasters data to predict the location and timing of landfall more accurately. Today he said officials issue hurricane watches and warnings for a "much longer stretch of coastline than is necessary " resulting in larger numbers of people being evacuated than are eventually affected by a storm.

Shaving 10 kilometers from the range in which forecasters believe a hurricane will strike which is NCEP's goal for the system by 2000 would save $6.4 million in evacuation costs for local residents and businesses that are not in a particular storm's path according to NWS data.

Although NCEP has not specified the technology it wants to purchase Debra Goldfarb vice president of workstations and high-performance systems with IDC Research said the agency is most likely to buy a vector supercomputer such as the one it already has rather than one based on newer massively parallel processing technology.

"When you're in a procurement situation you're looking to swap out the current environment [and] swap in the new environment and you want to do that without a hiccup " she said.

That means Cray as the only U.S. manufacturer of vector supercomputers is well-positioned to win the contract Goldfarb said. Although the firm is locked in competition with Japanese supercomputer vendors Fujitsu and NEC Corp. those firms recently were fined by the federal government for dumping their products on the U.S. market and "there is going to be a tremendous amount of pressure to buy American " she added.

Baker said the procurement is "full and open and not restricted to domestic suppliers." NCEP plans to issue a request for proposals in December and to award a new contract in March.

The new system is slated to be installed in July at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Greenbelt Md. where NWS is consolidating its computer operations.

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