The supercomputers of Oak Ridge National Lab

One of the world's largest supercomputer collections is in the Tennessee forest, where the first plutonium for the Manhattan Project was processed.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read
The Cray X1E at Oak Ridge National Lab's supercomputer facility is the 175th most powerful computer in the world and the No. 1 vector supercomputer on Earth. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

OAK RIDGE, Tenn.--If you want to see someone's face light up, try talking to a scientist in a supercomputer lab about their machines.

I had that experience last week when, as the last major stop on Road Trip 2008, I visited the National Center for Computational Sciences (NCCS) at the Oak Ridge National Lab to get a quick look at what is certainly one of the top facilities of its kind in the world.

My host was computational scientist Bronson Messer, and during a whirlwind tour of the center, he showed me several of the world's most powerful computers.

Oak Ridge National Lab, which is a Department of Energy research center not far from Knoxville, Tenn., is probably most famous for being the place where the first plutonium was processed for the Manhattan Project during World War II. But these days, it is a hotbed of research into materials sciences, energy efficiency and, of course, supercomputing.

A look inside one of the many panels of the Cray X1E at the Oak Ridge National Lab supercomputer facility. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

Messer explained that the NCCS is a "user facility," meaning that it is designed for open scientific research by just about anyone who wants to use it. That means, practically speaking, that researchers from other labs and universities around the country and world migrate to Oak Ridge for time on one of the center's several world-beating machines.

And if the research being done is published in open literature, then scientists are free to do what they want on the computers with no payments to NCCS. Messer said that there is a procedure for scientists who want to do proprietary research to help cover the lab's costs, but that that hasn't really happened yet.

When you first walk into the lab, you see a pretty impressive looking machine known as the Cray X1E. This is the world's 175th most powerful computer, clocking 18 teraflops, or 18 trillion floating point operations per second. The X1E is so big that it has aisles that you can walk through, and it requires 16-inch water pipes built into the floor below to liquid-cool it.

Nearby the X1E is IBM's Blue Gene, the 74th most-powerful supercomputer in the world, rated to 28 teraflops, and clearly a study in efficiency, since it is orders of magnitude smaller than the Cray machine.

The IBM Blue Gene supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Lab. It is the 74th most-powerful computer on Earth, rated at 28 teraflops. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

But what really struck me about Blue Gene is how much it looked like the giant transport ship used by the Jawas in the original Star Wars film--except sleeker and smaller.

If you think about it, for any lab to have two massively powerful computers like the X1E and the Blue Gene is impressive. But NCCS is aiming higher.

Already it has another giant computer, the Jaguar, a Cray machine that, at 54 teraflops, is the fifth-most powerful supercomputer in the world. And now, Messer explained, the lab is going for what he called "petascale computing," or the use of computers capable of more than a petaflop--a thousand teraflops.

The Cray Jaguar supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Lab is the world's fifth most powerful computer. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

Today, Messer said, there is one petascale computer in the world, a machine at the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico. But soon, NCCS will add its own such machine, and Messer said he thinks that when that happens, in a year or so, the Oak Ridge lab will at least be tied with LANL for the top computing spot in the world.

For now, however, NCCS has Jaguar, X1E and Blue Gene, as well as some smaller machines, and operates on an annual budget of between $80 million and $100 million. That money pays for about 60 full-time staffers who support the scientists who come from all over to use the machine.

Messer said NCCS has developed a very strong working relationship with Cray over the years and that there are some advantages to buying a machine like Jaguar, which has 7,832 AMD Barcelona Quad-Core Opteron processors.

"When you buy a computer this large," Messer said, "You get to pick the color."