CHEYENNE, Wyo. — One of the world's fastest supercomputers is now at work producing some of the highest-resolution modeling yet of everything from weather and climate to energy resources and the ways in which wildfires burn under varying conditions.
The new National Center for Atmospheric Research supercomputer, called Yellowstone, is almost 30 times more powerful and substantially replaces its predecessor at NCAR's Mesa Lab in Boulder, Colo.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday formally inaugurated the $30 million machine, which was developed by IBM and ranks among the world's top 20 fastest. Located on the high plains just west of Cheyenne, it's thought to be the world's fastest computer dedicated solely to earth sciences.
Projects already using Yellowstone will result in three-dimensional, high-resolution modeling of the Earth's crust, ocean turbulence, cumulus clouds, air pollution and solar magnetism.
Long-term, the computer will help water managers make better decisions and bridge the gap between weather forecasts and seasonal climate outlooks, said Thomas Bogdan, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which manages NCAR on behalf of the National Science Foundation.
"Knowledge of the future helps us to make better decisions so we can profit and remain safe," Bogdan said.
The machine successfully cleared three months of installation and testing in early October and was put to use for real research soon after, NCAR officials said.
Already a couple of projects are using of large chunks of Yellowstone's full capacity, more than 80 percent of the facility's processors.
"You don't want to buy a Ferrari and only drive it 55 mph, do you?" quipped Rich Loft, a technology development director at NCAR.
So how fast is Ferrari-fast, these days?
At the turn of the millennium, the world's fastest supercomputer was good for a teraflop, or 1 trillion calculations per second. Yellowstone does 1.5 petaflops, which at 1.5 quadrillion calculations per second is 1,500 times faster than the fastest computer 12 years ago.
A person with a pocket calculator would need almost 50 million years to complete as many computations as Yellowstone can run in one second.
The NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center not far off Interstate 80 could become a minor tourist attraction in the Cheyenne area. Several exhibits in the lobby of the building, which is open to the public, help to explain what the Yellowstone computer's all about.
One interactive computer exhibit called "Climate vs. Weather" shows a cartoon man walking a dog. The man walks in a straight line while the dog zigzags in front of him.
The dog — which represents weather — traces out a zigzagging line graph of short-term weather trends. The man — who represents climate — walks a straight line to show how short-term weather fluctuations average out into long-term climate trends.
Other exhibits explain parallel computing — the use of multiple processors to solve a single problem — and the relative efficiency of the energy-hungry computer, which has been using around 2 megawatts of electricity. Overhead, a maze of exposed ducts and pipes lends the sense of being inside a machine.
A room with 74 racks of processors, arranged in five rows about as long as a basketball court, is the heart of the facility.
The computer is located in a $70 million facility that took about a year to build and was funded in part with $57.6 million from the National Science Foundation.
The project is just one example of NSF's support of basic research, which 50 years ago included the foundational work for modern global positioning, said NSF Director Subra Suresh.
"Nobody knew, including NSF, that we would be using GPS in our handheld devices today," Suresh said. "If we had not funded the basic science, Apple, Google and others would not be able to do what they are doing today. This is what the National Science Foundation does."
The Wyoming Legislature pledged $20 million for the NCAR supercomputer project and state officials have expressed optimism it will lure more high-tech jobs to the state.
"I think the tech sector, because of all that Wyoming has to offer, has a great future in our state," Gov. Matt Mead said.
In April, Microsoft announced plans to invest up to $112 million on a data center not far from the NCAR supercomputer. The state has pledged $10.7 million for that project.