A peek at supercomputing with Blue Waters open house

A peek at supercomputing with Blue Waters open house

CHAMPAIGN – Blue Waters, the University of Illinois' state-of-the-art 88,000-square-foot facility that could revolutionize supercomputing, is up and running on a temporary, smaller scale.

For now, the hardware installed is an IBM Power 780, said spokeswoman Trish Barker. Power7 processors enable more performance than comparable IBM Power6-based systems on campus, in one-fourth the space, NCSA says. The IBM Power 780 hardware is very close to the hardware that will be used in Blue Waters.

When new IBM hardware comes, the water-cooled supercomputer will operate at a sustained petaflop – 1,000 trillion calculations per second – range.

Hence its formal name, National Petascale Computing Facility. The building at 1725 S. Oak St. had its formal opening Thursday, and visitors could see the 6-foot raised floors and enormous power handlers meant for a world leader – at a price tag of more than $200 million.

Hundreds of visitors backed up Oak Street for the tour, probably the most people who will ever be in the building at one time, since the computers will be accessed remotely by scientists.

"It's incomprehensible to me," an awed Helen Wikoff of Champaign said.

Bill Bell of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, which is based on the UI campus, said the plant has 24 megawatts of service on redundant lines, with no need for major generators as backups.

Three 10,000-gallon cooling towers feed water into 24-inch pipes that gradually branch out to provide cooling for the computers. For 70 percent of the year, the ambient temperature in central Illinois is sufficient to cool the water by itself, Bell said.

The Blue Waters machine will probably reign for about five years before new technology will cause it to be replaced, he said.

In 2007, The National Science Foundation Board recommended that the system be built at the UI, under the direction of the NCSA, with an online date of 2011.

"The building is ready," Barker said. "We're moving in limited hardware. You can see the 6-foot floor and the cooling system."

The IBM processors are being used "on a pretty limited basis" for applications relating to the development of Blue Waters, Barker said.

The building will also house the Arctic Region Supercomputing Center, a Department of Defense project to be operated remotely from Alaska, she said.

The 20,000-square-foot raised-floor data center will house the Blue Waters sustained-petaflop supercomputer and other computing, networking and data systems; the remainder of the building provides space for 40 staff members, the UI said.

The building is gold LEED certified, Bell noted, thanks in large part to the efficiency of water cooling.