NOAA unveils Linux 'Jet' stream

The first Linux-based supercomputer to win competitive federal government procurement is also a big step forward for weather prediction.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week officially unveiled the speedy new supercomputer — dubbed "Jet" — at the Forecast Systems Laboratory in Boulder, Colo.

NOAA will use the supercomputer to develop and test improved numerical weather models that form the basis of weather forecasting.

"This is a huge step forward for weather prediction," said Sandy MacDonald, director of FSL. "This supercomputer is really going to do two things for us: It will help us figure out how to use these types of computers in a better way. [And] it will make weather forecasts better."

High Performance Technologies Inc. developed Jet, which is based on the open-source operating system Linux and clusters of Compaq Computer Corp.'s Alpha workstations. NOAA awarded the estimated $17 million contract to HPTI in September 1999. HPTI beat out other industry supercomputer giants, including IBM Corp.

Currently, Jet consists of 276 Alpha processors tied together using a system called Myrinet, which allows the computers to talk to each other simultaneously while working on a problem. By 2002, Jet will have 1,500 processors and will process more than 5 trillion arithmetic computations per second.

Don Fitzpatrick, president and chief executive officer of HPTI, said it took "courage" for NOAA to select unproven technology. "I think the risk paid off," he said. "The result is a system that is [ranked] 34 in being the fastest supercomputer in the world. I assure you that [FSL's] budget does not rank anywhere near the top 100 in the world."

Using commercial off-the-shelf hardware products is the main reason HPTI could offer the supercomputer at a relatively low price, Fitzpatrick said. "None of this is custom-built," he said.

MacDonald said that 40 percent of the new supercomputer's processing power will be used for weather prediction models and 40 percent for the North American Atmospheric Observing System, which is a program to design an improved upper-air observing system.

The remaining 20 percent will be available for other NOAA research labs to use for developing ocean models and other modeling efforts.


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