DOE increases supercomputer stockpile

The Energy Department is muscling up on supercomputing power with an order for the first-ever petaflop system and an upgrade of its record-setting Blue Gene system.

DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Cray announced a $200 million deal last week to complete the world’s most powerful supercomputer in 2008. The supercomputer, which Cray has code-named Baker, will optimize Advanced Micro Devices dual-core Opteron processors to reach speeds of 1,000 trillion floating-point operations per second (teraflops), which is a petaflop. For comparison’s sake, the average PC reaches speeds of about 0.0001 teraflops.

Scientists at the Oak Ridge lab will use the unclassified system to solve problems in nanotechnology, biology and energy technologies, according to lab officials. They will give the computer a nickname later.

The lab also will offer computing time to industrial researchers through a DOE program that grants academic and corporate institutions supercomputer access for computationally intensive research projects in the national interest. For instance, this year, guest researchers from Boeing and DreamWorks Animation SKG will run models to help design more efficient aircraft and improve computer animation.

Cray spokesman Steve Conway said that for current science research, "there’s an almost insatiable demand for computing power. The more they can get the better off the science is going to be.”

DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and IBM announced last week that they have deployed the most powerful software computer code for the world’s most powerful supercomputer, Blue Gene. The computer code, dubbed Qbox, will help run classified materials science simulations critical to national security.

Qbox operates at the level comparable to an online game with 300 million simultaneous players -- the equivalent of every man, woman and child in the United States. With the Qbox application, Blue Gene achieved a sustained performance of 207.3 teraflops. Blue Gene belongs to the Lawrence Livermore facility’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

The IBM-built Blue Gene provides the materials analysis that NNSA needs to safeguard the nuclear weapons stockpile without going underground to test the actual weapons. “This is an important step on the path to performing predictive simulations of nuclear weapons, and these simulations are vital to ensuring the safety and reliability of our nuclear weapons stockpile,” said Dimitri Kusnezov, head of NNSA’s Advanced Simulation and Computing Program.

Herb Schultz, Blue Gene product manager, said the code will allow scientists to model many more molecules at once, revealing never-before-seen dynamics. Scientists also will be able to run simulations longer -- by adding an additional nanosecond or microsecond, for instance.

Qbox takes advantage of Blue Gene’s dual-core architecture. The “Q” in Qbox stands for “quantum,” which refers to the code’s quantum mechanical descriptions of electrons.

Beyond nuclear testing, the software has ramifications for the study of proteins in the human body. Yesterday's announcement was intended to encourage software vendors and researchers to develop new codes for the computing community to share.

“Such spin-off benefits often accompany focused programmatic efforts to foster technology," Kusnezov said. "This was certainly true for NASA during the years of the moon landing and is true today."

IBM presently shares its programming facilities with smaller software outfits that cannot afford to experiment with supercomputing software on their own. The market for supercomputing systems and software is still small.

“We’ve invested lab time for independent software vendors to come in and work their codes in our facilities,” Shultz said. “We think we can stimulate interest with this development in other unclassified applications elsewhere.”

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