Navy pools power to track storms

Center uses software to link scattered supercomputers

Navy supercomputer program at a glance

Project: Shared supercomputers

Agency: Navy's Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center

Goal: Pull together high-performance computing power in California and Mississippi to track storms during hurricane season

Obstacles: Money wasn't available to buy new hardware, and the centers were thousands of miles apart

Solution: New software lets officials in California access computing power available in Mississippi, in addition to monitoring the highly complex computer cycles

Payoff: The center has the resources it needs to run models under tight deadlines.

National Weather Service meteorologists track Hurricane Wilma at the Key West, Fla., office in October 2005.

The overwhelming devastation left by Hurricane Katrina is somewhat less shocking when taken in the context of overall storm statistics from 2005: The season logged a record 28 named storms, 15 of which reached hurricane level. Four of those rated Category 5, the strongest storms, with wind speeds exceeding 155 mph.

With the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicting 2006 to be a very active hurricane season, it's more urgent than ever that the supercomputers used to track and predict the paths of storms be up to the task.

'The track itself is pretty simple,' said Jay Morford of the Navy's Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center. 'What goes into making that track can be very complex.'

The center, in Monterey, Calif., helps track storms and provides data to Navy organizations, other Defense Department groups and some commercial entities.

'We're a weather and oceanography modeling organization within the Navy,' said Morford, an enterprise high-performance computing grid architect at Fleet Numerical.

'For the hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast last year, we were a big player in modeling those and sending out the hurricane tracks to the various Navy commands, and general commands and resources, along the Gulf Coast,' Morford said.

The myriad calculations needed to model, in detail, the tracks of such storms require the power and speed of high-performance computers. Using the same model, different levels of information are extracted for different users.

'What you'd see on the 5 o'clock news is condensed and translated into very simple terms,' Morford said.

Looking ahead to this year's hurricane season and anticipating that there would be no money to buy new hardware for the computer center, officials began casting around for a way to run all necessary computer cycles under tight deadlines.

They found the answer in software that would let scientists at the Monterey facility access high-performance computers in the center's sister facility in Mississippi.

The Navy chose two products that Platform Computing Inc. of Markham, Ontario, developed for high-performance computing. Platform LSF manages and accelerates batch workload processing for compute- and data-intensive workloads. Platform LSF MultiCluster lets the Monterey facility access the Mississippi location's computers.

New system

'LSF is a middleware-like product that lets an end user submit a piece of work that requires multiple computers to perform,' said David Tabor, an accounts manager for Platform. 'The software schedules those computers, manages them, ensures that the work is done successfully and then returns the result to the end users.'

If storm trackers in Monterey need to run a model, but the necessary computers aren't available there, the multicluster product lets them forward the job to Mississippi.

The system itself parses the work, letting Mississippi computers allocated to the California center work as though they were physically a part of a California cluster.

The job can be split up, with some of the work run in California and some in Mississippi, depending on how the product is implemented, Tabor said.

The new system makes it fast and painless to do what once was slow and laborious.

Before installing the multicluster system, a storm tracker who needed to run a model first would have to manually check every computer in a cluster to see which ones were available, then select a subset of computers for the job.

'Now all he does is submit one long string of environmental information to our software,' Tabor said. 'Our software tracks each computer automatically, all that status information. We're constantly looking at and retrieving information from the individual computer logs.'

The Platform software also helps with the high-performance computer challenge of monitoring jobs' progress.

A job request typically will require several computers to handle the task. Monitoring to ensure they are all performing presents a substantial challenge. During the cycle, several things can go wrong: A computer may fail, or a network attached to a computer may fail. Quickly catching any error can save hours of computing time.

The center's staff configured Platform to monitor the status of the environment. If something goes wrong, rules written by the center's IT staff tell it what to do.

'You can either start the job all over again or take that one component and send it to a different computer. It just depends on how the customer sets that up,' Tabor said. 'And it all works inside a secure environment, in the Navy's case.'

The project's success could affect how the center will buy high-performance computing hardware, Morford said. With hardware set up in different time zones, work could be scheduled across centers during off-peak hours.

But for today, Morford said he and his colleagues are better prepared for the 2006 hurricane season, which began June 1.

'With the multicluster, we've been able to run additional models that we could not have run in California,' he said.

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Government Computer News' sister publication, Washington Technology.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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