At Aberdeen lab, fast computing has long history

At Aberdeen lab, fast computing has long history

Charles J. Nietubicz heads the Major Shared Resource Center at Aberdeen.

By Patricia Daukantas

GCN Staff

ABERDEEN, Md.'In the building that housed the world's first fully electronic computer, the Army Research Laboratory is building a digital arsenal.

The collection of big iron at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in northeastern Maryland includes three SGI Origin2000 computers that rank on the latest list of the world's 500 fastest supercomputers (see story, Page 61). The lab's new Cray SV1 scalable vector system is undergoing tests in another building.

As the lab's workload has evolved from simple ballistic calculations to complex parallel simulations, its mission also has changed, said Charles J. Nietubicz, director of the Major Shared Resource Center (MSRC) and chief of the High Performance Computing Division at Aberdeen.

Ten years ago, the staff focused on just keeping the machines running, said Nietubicz, a 30-year veteran of Army computing.

Now, with four brands of supercomputers and a theoretical capacity of 1.9 trillion calculations per second, lab staff members provide high-level software training to Defense Department researchers while keeping a high-bandwidth network running.

'It's much more than computer cycles,' Nietubicz said.

The Aberdeen computer lab's history began in 1947, when the team that developed Eniac moved the pioneering computer from the University of Pennsylvania to Building 328 at the proving ground.

Eniac was here

Eniac remained at the Maryland facility, then known as the Ballistic Research Laboratory, into the early 1950s.

The lab later commissioned several custom-built computers, including BRLESC-I, which in 1962 was the fastest in the world. In the late 1970s, production models began to come from Control Data Corp. and later Cray Research Inc., Nietubicz said.

As a reminder of the laboratory's long history of state-of-the-art computing, a round, red Cray-2, the world's fastest in 1985, now sits unplugged in the lobby of Building 328.

The Defense Department launched its High Performance Computing Modernization Program in the early 1990s, when Congress recognized that the military was losing its research edge, Nietubicz said.

For decades, the mathematical equations that describe the airflow around a complicated shape such as a military projectile had defied both the human brain and computers. Scientists could solve the equations only for simple spheres and cones.

Today's supercomputers 'can solve the correct physical equations, but more importantly, we can solve the correct equations on the complex configurations that people need to have solved,' Nietubicz said.

The HPC Modernization Program has pumped about $2 billion into DOD computing over the last eight years, Nietubicz said. DOD has four large MSRC computing centers, including the facility at Aberdeen.

When the MSRCs opened their doors in 1996, the Aberdeen center kept its government work force at about 40 people, but increased the staff of contractor Raytheon Co. from 10 to 70.

The modernization program also created 15 smaller distributed centers for high-performance computing, including the Army HPC Research Center in Minneapolis [GCN, June 5, Page 40].

The lab has been working with its neighbor, the Army's Aberdeen Test Center, to cut costs by integrating computer modeling and simulation into ordnance testing. It has been something of a cultural change from the traditional reliance on ordnance experiments, Nietubicz said.

Test personnel get priority on the lab's cluster of three Sun Microsystems Ultra HPC 10000 computers, said Denice P. Brown, chief of the High Performance Computing Systems Branch.

Each of the Sun computers has 64 400-MHz processors and 64G of memory, Brown said. The trio has 1.7T of disk storage.

Recent acquisitions include two 256-processor and two 128-processor SGI Origin2000 supercomputers, a Cray SV1 with 24 processors, and a 512-processor IBM RS/6000 SP computer, Nietubicz said.

The new Cray SV1, from Cray Inc. of Seattle, combines vector processors with a parallel-processing framework.

Altogether, the MSRC has about 2,000 processors generating a theoretical maximum of 1.9 trillion floating-point operations per second, Nietubicz said.

A 622-Mbps OC-12 Sonet asynchronous transfer mode network connects researchers with the supercomputers, which have a total of about 250T in storage.

This week, ARL is shutting down its 16-processor Cray T90 vector supercomputer. The liquid-cooled machine, acquired in 1997, has 8G of memory and 864G of RAID storage. It will be dismantled and returned to the manufacturer, Brown said.

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