NEC to build weather supercomputer for U.K. Met Office

NEC will build a supercomputer for the Met Office, the U.K.'s national weather service, in a deal valued at £27.5 million (US$43.6 million), announced Friday.

The NEC supercomputer, comprised of 30 NEC SX-6 nodes, will be built in the Met Office's newly purpose-built offices in Exeter, England, in two major phases, said Joerg Stadler, NEC spokesman for the European Supercomputer Systems division. The first phase of the installation is expected to be completed in the second quarter of 2003, Stadler said.

The NEC supercomputer will be capable of doing 8 billion calculations per second on a single processor, and will have eight processors per node, or cabinet, with a total of 240 processors, Stadler said. Each node is capable of 64 billion calculations per second, a capacity that can be further increased when the nodes are connected together, Stadler said.

"What NEC is building is a very specialized tool with custom-built erector processors for number crunching. It is a totally NEC-designed system, the largest we have built outside of Japan," Stadler said.

The Met Office, which has been a "Trading Fund" since 1996 (the closest a U.K. government department can get to being a commercial company), focuses on global weather and weather forecasts, as well as environmental sciences, such as hydrology and oceanography, and looks into the impacts of the weather on the environment, according to its Web site. The NEC supercomputer will replace the Met Office's two specialized supercomputers, both Cray T3Es built by Cray Inc. of Seattle, and will be six times more powerful than the two Cray computers combined, Stadler said.

The computer upgrade will allow the Met Office to use higher-resolution models with improved computational and physical processing, allowing for increased accuracy in both short term and long term weather forecasts, the Met Office said in a statement.

"The computer will gather data from weather stations from all over the world at very high speeds and will quickly be able to predict how the atmosphere will behave. The high-throughput performance of the SX-6 series comes from using the highest speed DRAM (dynamic RAM) available and LSI (large-scale integrated circuit) technology, both of which are state-of-art," Stadler said.

Last month, NEC's Earth Simulator supercomputer was named by the 17th International Supercomputer Conference in Heidelberg, Germany, as the world's fastest supercomputer. The Earth Simulator is capable of 35 teraflops, or 25 million calculations per second and knocked last year's number one, IBM Corp.'s Asci White (capable of 7 teraflops per second), into second place. It was developed with the Japan Marine Science and Technology Federation to make predictions about the future of the earth's climate and crust.

"There is no doubt, IBM is clearly our largest competitor in the supercomputer market and though Compaq (Computer Corp., now owned by Hewlett-Packard Co.) has been making some powerful systems, it has always been a NEC/IBM battle. But I do admit, IBM has the most supercomputer systems actually out on the market," Stadler said.

According to Stadler, what sets NEC and IBM apart is the different philosophies the companies hold about supercomputing. "We use specialized computers whereas IBM uses general purpose computers for supercomputing. As a result, the peak theoretical performance at any one time of an IBM supercomputer is 5 percent to 10 percent while for NEC it is 30 percent to 60 percent. That means the price performance is better on our machines," Stadler said.

The cost of the Met Office supercomputer includes hardware, support on the software side and maintenance. Stadler expects installation will require an on-site hardware crew of three NEC employees, though that has yet to be finalized. "We hope that there won't be much for them to do, actually," Stadler said.

When the final upgrade is completed in 2004, the NEC supercomputer will be 12.5 times more powerful than what the Met Office is currently using, Stadler said.

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