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NOAA's next supercomputer will be a Cray-IBM hybrid system

Patrick Thibodeau | Feb. 3, 2015
New GFS weather model does a better job with recent blizzard.

GFS on Jan. 31
The updated GFS model in action this past weekend. Credit: NOAA

On Jan. 14, the U.S. upgraded its main weather forecasting model, which subsequently did a very good job in predicting the track of last week's East Coast blizzard. It correctly predicted that heavier snows would be east of New York City, even as the official weather forecast -- based on a mix of computer models -- had the city getting buried in two feet of snow.

When it didn't happen, there was some political fallout as officials struggled to explain to residents why they had closed schools and shut down public transportation.

The model that got the storm track right -- the updated U.S. Global Forecast System (GFS) model -- now runs on a relatively small 213-teraflop supercomputer (with each teraflop representing one trillion floating point operations per second). Ahead of the big storm, that hardware was running at near capacity.

Now, that system is about to get a serious upgrade to 776 teraflops.

The new system is now in acceptance testing and by October, the National Weather Service (NWS), which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), expects to have two 2.5-petaflop systems up and running. The Weather Service actually runs two GFS systems, one in Virginia and the other in Florida, with one serving as a potential backup.

The petaflop system (each petaflop equals 1,000 teraflops) will be a little unusual, thanks to complications arising from IBM's sale of its x86 server line to Lenovo.

NOAA uses an IBM System x iDataPlex running Intel Sandy Bridge chips and IBM was scheduled to deliver an upgrade for it last year. But the then-pending sale of its x86 division to Lenovo changed that plan.

Lenovo is a Chinese company, which created security concerns and complications for the U.S.

Rather than rebidding the hardware, NOAA worked out a new agreement with IBM to subcontract with Cray to create an integrated system that would reach the 2.5-petaflop goal, according to Michelle Mainelli, deputy director of central operations for NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Prediction.

These will be integrated platforms; they combine the compute capacity of two versions of the IBM iDataPlex systems that support Intel's Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge processors, and the Cray XC40. The Cray hardware utilizes Intel's Haswell chip running on a Linux OS. Infiniband switches are used to make the connections.

Having these mix-and-match in systems has turned out to be an advantage, said Mainelli. There are subtle differences in running systems on three different platforms, but that "just makes us smarter and more prepared for what comes next," she said.


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