Environmental center makes do after fire cripples supercomputer

Environmental center makes do after fire cripples supercomputer

'A thorough cleaning of the machine does not guarantee it will function favorably,'' NCEP's Carl Staton says.

By Frank Tiboni

GCN Staff

The National Centers for Environmental Prediction will decide later this month whether to fix, replace or do nothing to a $35 million weather supercomputer that caught fire late last month.

NCEP has called in experts from the public and private sectors to determine the extent of the damage done to the SGI Cray C90 supercomputer capable of 5 billion floating-point operations per second. Opinions vary on whether the agency can salvage the machine, said Carl Staton, director of NCEP's central operations.

'Cray officials said a thorough cleaning of the machine does not guarantee it will function favorably,'' Staton said. 'However, two independent firms said they could clean the machine to original specs and are now putting together final estimates.'

'We have made no final decision as to what we're going to do,'' he said.

The blaze

The Prince George's County Fire Department responded to and extinguished the fire on Monday, Sept. 27 at 4 p.m. at Federal Office Building 4 in Suitland, Md. Two power supply units in the supercomputer were damaged as well as other components in the machine, Staton said.

An engineer called in from the National Institutes of Standards and Technology determined a corroded wire in the power supply unit ignited the fire, he said.

A county fireman used a potassium bicarbonate-based extinguisher to put out the fire, and residue from the dry chemicals now covers a good portion of the C90. NCEP officials do not know where the fireman got the extinguisher because the agency keeps carbon dioxide-based extinguishers in the computer room, Staton said.

NCEP bought the C90 in June for $550,000 after awarding a $35 million contract to Cray in 1994 to lease the supercomputer. The National Weather Service office uses it to generate numerical weather forecast models on weather and climate, he said.

To do its work now, NCEP has turned to two Cray J90 systems capable of about 1 GFLOPS. The agency runs the weather models at a higher resolution and less frequency, but the models are delayed, Staton said.

Some models that usually run four times daily are now running twice daily, and one model that usually runs hourly is being run every three hours. Hourly runs resumed this month, he said.

NCEP and NWS are part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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