It's not the message, it's the medium: EPA needs more supercomputer cycles

Scientists at EPA's Environmental Research Laboratory in Duluth, Minn., use the agency's scientific visualization lab to study the accumulation of toxins in fish and particulate matter in human lungs.

A rising demand for supercomputer cycles has the Environmental Protection Agency's high-performance computer center in a bind.

It has been competing with other infrastructure projects for a decade. 'The capacity keeps growing, and the demand grows even faster,' said Mark E. Day, EPA's deputy CIO for technology.

EPA researchers model the effects of fine particulate matter on air quality and related subjects, such as the human lung's reaction to particle inhalation.

'Over time, supercomputing helps us redefine how we think about the environment. If Congress tells EPA to produce new regulations,' policy-makers can understand the research results better from visualizations than from tables of numbers, Day said.

'The demands are shifting from where the computer supports the experiment to where the computer is the experiment,' said Richard A. Martin, director of EPA's National Computer Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Ten years ago, EPA had three supercomputers from Cray Inc. of Seattle. Now the center, which moved into a new building at the start of the year, boasts a 120-processor, massively parallel Cray T3E-1200E and a 48-CPU IBM RS/6000 SP for distributed- or shared-memory uses.

Lead-foot transfers

Other resources include a Sun Microsystems Enterprise 4500 file server, which accesses the center's 60T tape archive, and a High-Performance Parallel Interface switch, which transfers data between supercomputers and file servers at up to 800 Mbps.

But research needs have exceeded that capacity, and the center has had to ask scientists in the Supercomputing Working Group to allocate hours by a peer-review process, Martin said.
The fee-for-service center gives EPA researchers a certain amount of visualization support with their computing cycles. For large projects, they must use a separate fee-for-service visualization lab.

A five-year plan for high-performance computing calls for demonstrating use of visualization and modeling throughout the agency, Martin said. The plan emphasizes scalable architectures and off-the-shelf technology'for example, a Beowulf-style cluster of commodity PCs linked by a LAN.

'We plan to just tell the vendor, 'We need cycles. You tell us how to get them,' ' Martin said.
As the center's current contract with Lockheed Martin Corp. expires, a performance-based, managed-service arrangement will replace it through the General Services Administration's Millennia contract. A task order will be out this month, with an award anticipated in August, Martin said.

Ultimately, EPA wants on-demand cycles from a contractor with the flexibility to handle high and low periods, Martin said. The agency might also sell cycles elsewhere in the government.

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