NOAA unveils Linux supercomputer

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Wednesday officially unveiled the first Linux-based supercomputer to win competitive federal government procurement.

NOAA's Forecast Systems Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, will use the new supercomputer - dubbed "Jet" for its speed - to develop and test improved numerical weather models that form the basis of weather forecasting. Faster, more accurate weather models will ultimately mean better weather forecasts.

"This is a huge step forward for weather prediction," said Sandy MacDonald, director of FSL. "This supercomputer is really going to do two things for us: It will help us figure out how to use these types of computers in a better way. [And] it will make weather forecasts better."

High Performance Technologies developed Jet, which is based on the open-source operating system Linux and clusters of Compaq Computer Corp.'s Alpha workstations. NOAA awarded the estimated $17 million contract to HPTI in September 1999. HPTI beat out other industry supercomputer giants, including IBM.

Currently, Jet consists of 276 Alpha processors tied together using a system called Myrinet, which allows the computers to talk to each other simultaneously while working on a problem. By 2002, Jet will have 1,500 processors and will process over 5 trillion arithmetic computations per second.

Don Fitzpatrick, president and chief executive officer at HPTI, said it took "courage" for NOAA to select unproven technology. "I think the risk paid off," he said. "The result is a system that is [ranked] 34 in being the fastest supercomputer in the world. I assure you that [FSL's] budget does not rank anywhere near the top 100 in the world."

Using commercial off-the-shelf hardware products is the main reason HPTI could offer the supercomputer at a relatively low price, Fitzpatrick said. "None of this is custom-built," he said.

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