EPA beefs up supercomputing power for weather research

A new supercomputer purchased by the Environmental Protection Agency will be dedicated to research on air quality, helping the agency to carry out the Clean Air Act.

The $6.8 million Cray T3E supercomputer from Silicon Graphics Inc. is a workhorse system for environmental applications, said David Blaskovich, SGI's director of marketing for weather and environmental markets. Just more than 12 T3E systems are currently deployed in federal agencies, including intelligence agencies, Defense and Energy Department laboratories and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The T3E is scheduled to be installed this month at the EPA's supercomputing laboratory in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Rick Rineer, deputy chief information officer with the EPA's Office of Research and Development, said agency scientists first planned to buy the system two years ago but decided to rent time on supercomputers supplied by vendors and the North Carolina Supercomputing Center. But this year, Rineer said, officials determined that bringing a system in house would save about one-third the cost of contracting out the work.

Other federal supercomputing laboratories recently have been purchasing more advanced equipment that has not been widely used in a production environment. But Rineer said the EPA chose the T3E because it is compatible with older Cray systems the agency uses: the C90 and the T3D.

The C90 is a vector-based system, in which software instructions are executed sequentially. The T3D is the immediate predecessor of the T3E. Both of these are massively parallel systems, in which problems are split up among multiple processors.

Blaskovich said the T3E provides the EPA with added computational capabilities that the agency can take advantage of today while providing the flexibility to migrate to more advanced systems over time.

Joan Novak, manager of the EPA's High Performance Computing and Communications program, said new applications require more processing power and memory, which the T3E will provide. For example, she said, most EPA computer models traditionally have focused on a single aspect of the environment, such as air or water.

"We're now moving to a more community- or place-based approach, rather than just dealing with air problems or water problems separately," she said. "When you do that, you need significant changes in resolution, both in the spatial resolution and time. Now that computer performance has grown and parallel or scalable machines are available, we're able to consider modeling multiple pollutants simultaneously."

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