NOAA weather forecasters try remote supercomputing

The challenge 'is meeting the mission requirements ... multiple times a day within a fixed window.'

'NOAA CIO Carl P. Staton

(GCN Photo by Steve Barrett)

The government's chief meteorologists will harness a powerful new supercomputer to their daily and weekly forecasts.

The National Centers for Environmental Prediction late last month signed a nine-year, $224.4 million contract to lease a 2,752-processor SP system from IBM Corp.

During its first three years, the system at IBM's Gaithersburg, Md., facility will provide nearly five times the computational power of the center's current supercomputer, said Carl P. Staton, CIO of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NCEP's parent agency.

The new supercomputer will have 1.3-GHz IBM Power4 processors, which will give it a theoretical peak of 11.4 trillion operations per second, Staton said. In view of the weather models' complexity, sustained performance of the new system will be about 700 billion operations per second, compared with about 150 billion on the current IBM SP.

'The challenge for this system is meeting the mission requirements of running the weather models and seasonal climate models multiple times a day within a fixed window,' Staton said.

The centers generate so-called operational forecasts daily for distribution to aviation, agriculture and media outlets, as well as less-frequent seasonal climate forecasts. Because a 24-hour weather forecast is useless if it arrives late, NCEP must keep boosting its computing capacity to handle ever-increasing amounts of observational data and ever-growing model complexity.

Researchers hope to refine their mesoscale model's resolution from 12 kilometers down to 8 kilometers by fiscal 2006, Staton said. The finer the resolution, the more detail meteorologists can see in weather patterns.

Other goals for fiscal 2006 include changing the global-scale model's resolution from 80 kilometers to 40, the aviation model's resolution from 20 kilometers to 13 and the hurricane-tracking model's resolution from 18 kilometers to 10.

Unlike the current 2,208-processor IBM SP, which resides at NOAA's computer center in Bowie, Md., the new system will be in Gaithersburg, Staton said. It will be operated remotely from the centers' Camp Springs, Md., headquarters over an OC-3, 155-Mbps asynchronous transfer mode network.

Remote operation was an option in the request for proposals. The bureau already runs its Bowie IBM SP somewhat remotely, in lights-out mode, Staton said.

Upgrade incrementally

Under NOAA's road map for the contract, which has a three-year base period and two three-year options, the centers will incrementally upgrade the supercomputer through October 2009 until it is 48 times more powerful than today's IBM SP.

The leasing arrangement helps NCEP keep up with rapid technological change, Staton said.
'Technology is still going to follow Moore's law,' Staton said, referring to the mid-1960s prediction by then Intel Corp. chairman Gordon Moore that semiconductor transistor density would double every 18 to 24 months.

Staton said he expects the old and new supercomputers will start operating in parallel next April. Although IBM holds the contracts for both old and new systems, NOAA selected the company to provide the new supercomputer through a full-and-open competition, Staton said.

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