Open Spaces
4:42 pm
Fri March 9, 2012

Wyoming anticipates arrival of supercomputer in Cheyenne

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The National Center for Atmospheric Research is building a supercomputing center in Cheyenne, which will house one of the most powerful computers in the world. Scientists are looking forward to the machine’s arrival … and many in Wyoming say its presence here will put the state on the map. The facility where the computer will be located is finished … and the machine itself is set to arrive in May. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden toured the building … and filed this report.

WILLOW BELDEN: When you enter the supercomputing center, you find yourself in an airy atrium. Floor-to-ceiling windows on one wall afford a glimpse into a large, mostly empty room.

GARY NEW: That is the data center, that you’re looking at through the window. That’s 12,000 square feet of computing.

BELDEN: That’s Gary New, the facility’s head of operations. He leads the way into the room, and explains that the supercomputer, which is named Yellowstone, will be housed in a series of cabinets here. Lots of cabinets. It’s a very big computer.

NEW: To give you an idea, the Yellowstone system is going to come in on 18 to 20 semis. … So it’s a pretty large delivery that’s going to come here in mid-May.

BELDEN: And a computer that big is powerful. Roger Wakimoto is the director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the Colorado-based group that’s building the center. He says NCAR will use the computer primarily to do climate and weather simulations – things like modeling hurricanes.

ROGER WAKIMOTO: We do this now, but with the supercomputer center, we’ll … expect about a 30-fold increase in computing power.

BELDEN: That means they’ll be able to do their simulations faster … they’ll be able to plug in more variables at one time … and they’ll be able to see more detail.

WAKIMOTO: No different than a high-definition screen on a TV, versus a low-resolution TV. You look at it and say, “Wow.” It’s the same thing here: we’ll be able to look at it essentially in high definition.

BELDEN: So it’s understandable why Wakimoto and his colleagues at NCAR are excited about the computer. Interestingly, many in Wyoming are equally excited. The state shelled out 20-million dollars for construction costs, UW has promised to contribute a million dollars annually for equipment upgrades, and Gov. Matt Mead touted the center in his State of the State Address. Yet the facility will only employ 20 to 30 people, and the researchers using it will all be located elsewhere and will access the computer remotely. So what’s in it for Wyoming?

For starters, the University of Wyoming gets access to 20 percent of the computer.

BRYAN SHADER: We jokingly say that means they get to use it on Tuesdays.

BELDEN: That’s Bryan Shader, special assistant to the VP for research and economic development at UW. He says the computer will enable UW faculty and students to do cutting edge research on climate, hydrology and wind. And he says their projects could have very concrete applications.

SHADER: So if you were thinking of how best could I organize the wind turbines on a farm, you don’t want to do that physically; you want to do that experimentally. And so now you can run all kinds of different scenarios on a computer. And then you say, ‘Well, which one is the best?’ And then you can actually go build the wind farm.

BELDEN: Shader says the ability to do that kind of complex research will put UW on the map.

The state hopes the supercomputing center will put Wyoming on the map in another sense, too, by making it seem like a more tech-friendly environment. Randy Bruns is the CEO of Cheyenne LEADS, an economic development organization in Laramie County. He says Cheyenne has all the things a computing center needs – like lots of empty land, and lots of cheap power. But he says technology-focused companies from out of state often don’t realize that.

RANDY BRUNS: But now here is a real example, where people have done a lot of careful study and research and have said, ‘This is where we’re going to commit this resource, because they have the things we need.’

BELDEN: Bruns says that will likely attract other tech businesses. And he says that’s good because it will diversify the economy and could make the state more competitive.

Of course, computing centers do have the potential to leave a substantial environmental footprint. Aaron Anderson is the deputy director of operations at the facility. He says computers this size need a lot of electricity to run … and they generate a massive amount of heat, so it can also be very energy intensive to cool them.

AARON ANDERSEN: In many computing facilities, the cooling takes as much energy as the computers themselves. So for every one megawatt of power for the computer, you might require another megawatt to cool it.

BELDEN: But Andersen says the cooling system at this facility will be about ten times more efficient, because it’s located in a cool, dry place. So instead of running air conditioners, they’ll use the ambient air temperature to chill water, which drive’s the computer’s cooling system. The building will also harness heat the computer produces, and use that to warm parts of the building, and even to melt snow beneath the parking lots.

So even though this one building uses about 3 percent of the electricity of the entire city of Cheyenne, it’s about as green as a computing center can be. And most agree that it’s going to be a significant asset to the state and the university.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.