Linux takes NOAA by storm

In what may be the first competitive government contract involving the Linux operating system, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last month tagged a Reston, Va.-based company to provide a Linux-based supercomputer that promises drastic improvements in the ability to forecast dangerous weather patterns.

Under the terms of the $15 million contract, High Performance Technologies Inc. will install the first large-scale cluster of Compaq Computer Corp.'s XP1000 Alpha workstations running Linux at NOAA's Forecast Systems Laboratory in Boulder, Colo.

According to NOAA officials, the cluster will involve 277 workstations capable of crunching 300 billion arithmetic operations per second—a capability that is 20 times more powerful than the lab's current system. The cluster will represent one of the most powerful computers in the world, they said.

David Rhoades, director of High Performance Computing at HPTi, said the award is just the beginning of a significant swing toward the use of Linux. "There are fads and there are trends; we believe Linux is a trend," Rhoades said. "We also believe this is the supercomputing architecture of the future."

Industry sources said HPTi's Linux-based solution beat several industry giants in the supercomputing market, most likely including IBM Corp., Silicon Graphics Inc., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Compaq's own supercomputing solution. However, because the post-award review still is under way, officials declined to comment on exactly who the other bidders were.

Linux is a Unix-like open-source operating system that enables developers to access and customize source code. The Linux kernel is composed of roughly 1.5 million lines of code that users can study and improve. Enhancements are distributed throughout the Linux community and subjected to a strict peer review process that examines the code changes for bugs and flaws.

According to officials, the new Linux-based supercomputer will be used to support the development of accurate weather models and will enable analysts to run different models simultaneously. NOAA also plans to use the system to develop ocean models and an upper-air observing system that will enhance the administration's ability to forecast current conditions.

The Forecast Systems Laboratory is one of the nation's leading weather technology centers, and it played a pivotal role in the effort to modernize the National Weather Service.

Officials at the lab expect the system to be installed by the first week of November and plan to upgrade it several times over the next 34 months.

NOAA's new supercomputer, however, is not the only system to run on Linux, according to Leslie Hart, a computer scientist at the Forecast Systems Laboratory. The FSL already runs two clusters of Intel Corp. Pentium III-based machines on Linux and supports a large number of the agency's desktop systems using the operating system.

"The focus [of this acquisition] was on price and performance," Hart said. "Benchmark results were used as a basis for the computational capabilities [of the system], and we were very happy with them."He added that officials have no concerns about the ability of Linux to support large-scale clusters. He noted that FSL is a computational group, as opposed to an organization that is concerned with office applications, and Linux gives the organization the tools it needs.

Gary Newgaard, vice president of Compaq's federal division, said the Linux/Alpha solution won what he termed a "very competitive" award because of its cost effectiveness and high performance. Newgaard said he is seeing high-end users within some agencies embracing the Linux solution because those users typically are early adopters. He added that it is hard to predict how long it will be before Linux makes its way down to the desktop in large volumes.

Alan Horwitz, advanced technology director at Compaq federal, said the company is offering Linux as an alternative solution because its customer base is asking for more options."Compaq is truly embracing Linux as an OS that people will want, particularly in a clustered environment," he said.


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