NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center enters new phase

Jun 10, 2011 - by Staff


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CHEYENNE—With a year to go before the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC) becomes fully operational, construction on the $70 million facility is mostly complete. The project now enters the next phase: testing the building's complex infrastructure and this fall, procurement, installation, and testing of the center’s supercomputing systems beginning in early 2012.

The next few months will focus on testing, verifying, and optimizing the NWSC’s intricate building systems to make sure they meet the design and operational specifications established by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). This process is known as building commissioning.

Also in the fall, NCAR expects to announce the supercomputing vendor. The highly specialized nature of Earth system research makes computer procurement a lengthy process, from specifying system requirements to reviewing competitive bids from supercomputing system manufacturers.

exterior of NWSC, with tall water tower at right
The NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center is about a year from full operations. Construction of the facility in Cheyenne, Wyoming, is nearly complete. The $70 million facility will house a state-of-the-art supercomputer to support atmospheric and Earth system research. (Image courtesy OxBlue.)

“I am proud that Wyoming will be home to a computer with the power and capability of the NCAR-Wyoming supercomputer,” Wyoming Governor Matt Mead says. “This supercomputing center will provide important research capability for our state and our country. It will also show that Wyoming is a great place to build a facility that has the demands for power and connectivity that this center will have.”


“The partnership with Wyoming is an innovative way to leverage scarce resources so we can provide the scientific community with modern supercomputing tools,” says Richard Anthes, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which manages NCAR. “These tools are essential to advance the science of weather, climate, and related fields that NCAR, the University of Wyoming, and our other UCAR universities investigate. We're delighted that the project is on schedule and within budget.”

Located in Cheyenne’s North Range Business Park, near the intersection of I-80 and I-25, the 153,000-square-foot supercomputing center will provide advanced computing services to scientists across the United States. Most researchers will interact with the center remotely, via a laptop or desktop computer and the Internet.

Construction of the NWSC is a partnership among NCAR, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the University of Wyoming (UW), the State of Wyoming, Cheyenne LEADS, the Wyoming Business Council, and Cheyenne Light, Fuel & Power. NCAR will operate the NWSC on behalf of NSF and its managing entity, UCAR.

Helping people, property, and livelihoods

Scientists rely on advanced computing to understand complex processes in the atmosphere and across the Earth system. Researchers from a broad range of disciplines—including meteorology, climate science, oceanography, air pollution and atmospheric chemistry, space weather, aviation safety, seismology, wildfire management, computational science, energy production, and carbon sequestration—will have research access to the NWSC.

NCAR director Roger Wakimoto expects the NWSC to have far-reaching benefits.

“We might not realize it, but we are all users of information that has come from research conducted on supercomputers,” says Wakimoto. “If severe drought or flooding is expected to hit a region, then residents, farmers, and businesses need to know in advance. If a solar storm is likely to hit Earth, telecommunications companies need to be prepared for disrupted satellite communications and power companies need to monitor the electrical grid. Even tomorrow’s high and low temperatures or whether it might rain or snow are based on simulations developed on supercomputers. Advanced warning of potential disasters can protect lives and livelihoods.”

UW is honing its research capabilities for when the new supercomputer comes online.

Through the NWSC partnership, which will also seek to advance education and outreach, UW will have research use of 20 percent of NCAR’s main computing resource. In turn, UW will provide $1 million each year for 20 years for ongoing equipment and data storage. The state of Wyoming also contributed $20 million toward the construction of the center.

“A number of years ago, we identified computational science as an area of excellence for the University of Wyoming. With access to this supercomputing center, we’ll be able to surpass our own high expectations,” UW president Tom Buchanan says. “We’ve been able to recruit and retain top-notch faculty whose research into better understanding how Earth systems work in this part of the world will benefit us all.” 

“The NWSC is an exciting partnership between one of our national centers and the State of Wyoming that will provide much-needed state-of-the-art supercomputing facilities for scientists and educators throughout the United States,” says Sarah Ruth, NSF program manager. “The NWSC project team has done an excellent job in bringing the project so close to completion in such a short time.”

The NWSC will also include a sophisticated data storage and archival facility that will hold a trove of scientific data, including historical climate records.

Future-proof design

NCAR has housed supercomputers in its Mesa Laboratory since the 1960s, even though the Boulder facility was not built with supercomputing in mind. In recent years, new research questions have required more powerful computers to run increasingly complex computer simulations. The Mesa Lab has now reached the limits of its ability to provide the necessary energy and cooling capacity essential for the next generation of supercomputers.

Once full operation begins in the summer of 2012, the NWSC will continue to advance scientific discovery for the next several decades. Its design and construction have been "future proofed" by providing the scope to expand as supercomputing technology that does not exist today becomes available in the future.

The initial NWSC construction includes two side-by-side modules, dubbed A and B, with the B module set to be the first outfitted with computing systems. Each module has approximately 12,000 square feet of raised floor space to provide a large computing room upstairs and space dedicated to infrastructure below.

Raised floors are key to the facility’s flexible design, allowing the computing systems, electrical supply, and cooling to be positioned and controlled for optimal energy use. The raised floor is also vented, so air can be circulated as needed to computing systems and servers.  

The NWSC’s design takes full advantage of Cheyenne’s elevation and cool, dry climate by employing ambient air to cool the facility nearly year round. This will significantly reduce the facility's energy use.

A minimum of 10 percent of the power provided to the facility will be wind energy from the nearby Happy Jack Wind Farm. NCAR and UCAR will continue discussions with the local energy provider to increase the percentage of renewable energy provided to the facility in future years.

In a high-performing facility like the NWSC, building commissioning is essential for ensuring that long-term operational and maintenance cost goals can be met and that lower energy costs through improved efficiency can be achieved.

NCAR is also pursuing LEED certification for the NWSC under the U.S. Green Building Council certification system, a recognized standard for measuring and ranking building sustainability. The NWSC is currently on track for LEED Gold certification.

Planning for the supercomputer


Internal view of a supercomputer's circuitry
The workings of a supercomputer. Increasingly fast supercomputers are vital to research in a broad range of disciplines including weather, climate, oceanography, and air pollution.  (©UCAR, photo by Carlye Calvin. This image is freely available for media use. For more information, see Media & nonprofit use.*)

The NWSC will be a facility capable of housing a petaflops supercomputer (a petaflops is a thousand trillion mathematical “flops” operations per second). When fully operational in 2012, the NWSC will likely rank among the world’s fastest supercomputers dedicated to Earth science research. The rankings of supercomputers are constantly changing as ever-faster machines are developed.


The exact speed and the manufacturer of the supercomputer will be determined once the procurement process is complete. NCAR expects to make an announcement about the successful vendor this fall. Budget estimates for the procurement range from $25 to $35 million.

The NWSC design effort formally began in March 2009. Construction of the facility began in June 2010. The funding for construction has come from NSF and the state of Wyoming, with Cheyenne LEADS contributing the land and Cheyenne Light, Fuel & Power contributing the power infrastructure required to operate the facility.

The Wyoming partners won the competitive process to site the supercomputing center in Cheyenne after meeting both extensive technical and financial criteria, including: sufficient site size, availability of adequate power, ready access to fiber optic networks, local climatological conditions offering the potential to offset energy requirements for cooling, access to renewable energy to meet sustainability and energy efficiency goals, as well as short and long-term financial contributions.

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