Hopper supercomputer, named after trailblazer, reaches end of the road

Hopper supercomputer, named after trailblazer, reaches end of the road

The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center's Hopper supercomputer was retired on Dec. 15, and will likely face the same wood chipper fate that most supercomputers do. Jeff Broughton, NERSC's deputy for operations and systems department head, explained that Hopper will go through the standard process that all non-secure data supercomputers do when it comes to trying to find it a second home. But most likely, because Cray (Hopper’s manufacturer) has moved on to a whole different level of supercomputers, it won’t have any takers.

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The one part of Hopper that is guaranteed to find a new home is the image of Rear Adm. Grace Brewster Murray Hopper herself, which is displayed across the computer panels. That has a place at NERSC to honor the computer’s namesake as a trailblazer in computer sciences. “Hopper has become iconic for us and her imagery is on the panel," Broughton said. "We’ll keep those panels and put them on display in the new building.”

Hopper, often cited as the person who coined the phrase “debugged” (after her colleagues found a moth in a relay) has a far longer list of accomplishments. An admiral in the Navy, with a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale, she was part of the group that created the first computer language compiler, which eventually led to COBOL.

The computer named after her had its own firsts. It was one of the first to use petaflop technology, and the first NERSC had on campus, according to Jon Bashor, the center's communications manager. “Each time the supercomputing community deploys a system at the next level of performance, whether megaflops, gigaflops, teraflops or petaflops, it's a big milestone," he said, "setting a new level for overall performance and raising the bar.”

The Hopper supercomputer was host to around 6,000 researchers at any given time, from around the country and overseas, and its petaflop technology increased the “time to solution” speed for users, Bashor said. Researchers use supercomputers for everything from trying to follow supernova patterns to designing Pringles potato chips that won’t fly off the conveyor belt.

Taking Hopper’s place at NERSC is Cori, named after Gerty Cori, the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize in science. Months ago, Cray provided a smaller version of Cori so users could start porting over their applications. Now Cori is going through the final testing stages before it formally replaces Hopper. (NERSC always has "two systems on the floor," Bashor explained. While Cori is going through acceptance testing, the Edison supercomputer system is handling the production load now that Hopper is retired.)

Broughton said NERSC usually has a small party in honor of each supercomputer’s retirement. This year, however, the agency skipped the celebration, as the staff was so busy moving into a new building. Based on Hopper’s biographies, she wasn’t one to fuss or get caught up in formalities (she apparently didn’t bat an eyelash when named Computer Sciences Man of the Year 1969), so she probably wouldn’t mind.

About the Author

Suzette Lohmeyer is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

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