The Wildest Supercomputer in the West

The Wildest Supercomputer in the West

We spotted antelope, bison, and snow-capped peaks as our van traveled between Colorado and Wyoming. The area used to be known as the western frontier, but we were there to see something else - one of the fastest computers in the world – a technological frontier.

Last week, ten of us from the UCAR Center for Science Education and NCAR visited a supercomputer housed on the prairie west of Cheyenne at the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center.

A supercomputer is the fastest type of computer there is. It’s able to run complex models like those that help us understand climate and weather. Supercomputers have gotten faster and faster over the last half century or so, which allows models to get more complex and detailed. The first supercomputer had about the same computing power as a modern smartphone, but the computer we visited is made of 72,000 processors wired together to work as one.  According to our tour guide, assistant site manager Jim Vandyke, “it would take hundreds of millions of years for a person to do the calculations that this supercomputer can do in a few seconds.”

I’m not usually floored by technology but the roomful of whirring black boxes, wires, and blinking lights was amazing, especially when considering what it was doing – simulating Earth to see how climate changes, where air pollution goes, how severe weather events occur. Our best understanding of the planet is in that computer.

While I was in awe of the black whirring boxes, most of the rest of our group was amazed by the systems in the building that keep the computer running.

“The computer is kind of boring to me,” said educator Marc Mueller. “I like to see all the stuff that makes it work.” When I downloaded my photos, I could see his point. I had more pictures of the inner workings of the building than the computers. Within the building are gigantic emergency generators, enormous mufflers, sixteen miles of cable, huge batteries with 4-megawatts of backup power, pipes that send water through the building, and a wall of fans and filters.

It takes a lot of energy to power a supercomputer and, because it generates tremendous heat, it can take even more energy to keep it cool. Dealing with the heat is serious business. We learned from Jim that the building is customized to be a supercomputer home – it was built to deal with heat. The building, which is certified LEED Gold, is able to maintain a cool temperature without using much energy. Last year the air conditioning was only needed for about 200 hours. An elaborate system of water and fans acts like a circulatory system for heat around the building, drawing heat produced by the computers away. Wyoming’s cool dry winds help too.

The building is awesome. The computer is, in fact, super. But something unexpected made the utility of this massive computer much more tangible. One member of our group, Alexandra Jahn, who is a scientist with NCAR’s paleoclimate team, got an email during our tour that her model run to simulate ocean chemistry had just completed. She had submitted her project online the previous day, but had no idea that while we visited the whirring boxes of the computer, they would be performing the calculations to simulate the climate and oceans so that Alexandra and other scientists can better understand our world.

If you are in the Cheyenne, Wyoming, area, stop by and say ‘hi’ to this supercomputer. The visitor center is open weekdays and Saturdays. The Center's Climate Modeling page gives an overview of how climate models work. And to learn more about the science that uses this supercomputer, check out the article Yellowstone Supercomputer delivers early results  from Atmosnews.