Texas university to build powerful supercomputer


CNN | Joshua Rubin | September 22, 2011 -- Updated 2049 GMT (0449 HKT)

Austin, Texas (CNN) -- Maybe everything really is bigger in Texas.

The Lonestars, a series of blazingly fast supercomputers, put the Texas Advanced Computing Center on the map in 2003. Then came the Ranger system, which was more than 100 times more powerful than the first Lonestar computers.

Now, with a $27 million grant from the National Science Foundation, a new supercomputer is set to raise the bar again at the center, located at the University of Texas at Austin. Called Stampede, it's expected to come online in 2013. If it were running today, TACC officials say, it would be the world's fastest supercomputer.

"Building these very powerful computing systems enables researchers who are at the forefront of certain fields to ask deeper questions, to run bigger simulations, to test their theories at the boundaries of what we currently know, and that helps push those boundaries back," says TACC director Jay Boisseau.

At the heart of Stampede will be two kinds of Intel processors. More than 12,000 eight-core Xeon E5 processors will combine to produce 2 petaflops -- a measure of a computer's processing speed. But the bulk of the raw processing power, an astounding 8 petaflops, will come from Intel¹s newest MIC (many integrated core) chips, which have more than 50 processing cores per unit.

The Stampede supercomputer will be the first major rollout of these new chips, TACC scientists say. Once completed, the system will be able to perform 10 quadrillion operations per second, making it one of the fastest computers on the planet. By comparison, IBM's massive Watson computer, which beat two human rivals on "Jeopardy!" earlier this year, is much less powerful.

Moore¹s Law predicts the doubling of computer processing speed about every two years, but advances in supercomputing have allowed systems such as Stampede to increase in power at an even faster rate.

Scientists like Omar Ghattas see great potential in the exponentially more powerful Stampede computer. A professor of geosciences at the University of Texas, Ghattas has used supercomputers to track everything from the global impact of March's Japan earthquake to how melting ice sheets in Antarctica will increase sea levels. The more powerful the machine, the more data points can be processed.

"It's like resolution in a camera -- we¹re always trying to increase the pixels in our cameras," Ghattas told CNN. "Well, it¹s the same sort of thing that happens with supercomputers when you are using mathematical models that represent complex physical phenomena. We have equations, differential equations that represent these phenomenon, and we solve them on a grid and we¹re trying to get better and better resolution."

The current holder of the World's Fastest Computer title is the K computer, which was brought online in June at a computing institute in Kobe, Japan, and has a peak performance of 8.162 petaflops. At a theoretical top speed of 10 petaflops, the Stampede system would beat that, but because it won't become operational for several years, newer supercomputers will likely surpass it by then.

Supercomputing is revolutionizing open research within the global scientific community, based on the idea that scientific knowledge -- and access to supercomputers -- should be openly shared and available to all. TACC scientists estimate that once the Stampede system is completed, it will help process more than 1,000 different research studies every year. Time on the system will be free, but access will be granted based on a national peer-review board of scientists.

The Stampede supercomputer also is a monster in terms of energy consumption. Once operational, it is expected to gobble approximately 9 megawatts of power per year -- about the amount used by 9,000 single-family homes. TACC already has one power substation on the university campus, but to accommodate future growth the center may need another.

This is a large expense, but University of Texas President William Powers is firmly behind the center and its research.

"We¹re very proud of the fact that this is going to be a worldwide asset, but it's Texas built, kind of homegrown. That design that we started with Ranger and Lonestar and now Stampede, that design in of itself is a great breakthrough," he says. "So we¹re proud of the computer, but we¹re also proud of being on the leading edge of designing how supercomputers work, communicate, and interface with the scientific community."

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