U.S. buys weather supercomputer with twin backup

Forecasters say duplicate system needed to ensure continuous uptime

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. has upgraded the supercomputer used to develop weather forecast models, a system so critical to meteorologists that the government has bought a second, identical system as a backup.

This National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) system, which went online in August, is composed of "Stratus" and its backup, "Cirrus," two separate supercomputers with about 5,000 IBM Power6 chips running AIX operating systems.

Housed at separate locations, the two computers run as "perfectly symmetrical pairs," and if Stratus fails for any reason, Cirrus is designed to take over in a matter of minutes, said Ben Kyger, director of central operations for NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Protection.

Weather forecasters rely on the models produced by this system, and if there was ever an interruption "you're not going to have a forecast -- or you are going to do it without model guidance, which is like going back to the Stone Age," Kyger said.

Stratus and Cirrus were delivered under a $180 million contract that NOAA has with IBM. It replaces a Power5 based system, which also had a backup.

The new system has the capability of running at about 70 TFLOPS (trillion calculations per second), which puts it somewhere near the 50th most powerful computer in the world. It has about four times the power of the previous system.

In contrast, IBM is planning to build a 20 PFLOP system for the U.S. A petaflop is 1,000 trillion (one quadrillion) sustained floating-point operations per second.

The Stratus/Cirrus system will allow scientists to improve the accuracy of the forecast by processing more information, as well as improving the resolution or finer details of weather conditions in smaller areas. However, those improvements aren't turned on simply by a hardware upgrade; they are more evolutionary, Kyger said.

Stratus/Cirrus will be delivered as part of the final phase of a nine-year contract with IBM.

Separately, Cray Inc. said today that it has signed a $40 multi-year contract to provide the Korea Meteorological Administration with a Cray XT5, which uses Linux and Advance Micro Devices (AMD) Opteron chips.

That system is expected to have a peak performance of 600 TFLOP, which would make it one of the fastest systems in the world.

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