With Blue Waters, supercomputing goes national

In March, the University of Illinois' National Center for Supercomputing Applications unveiled Blue Waters. CNET Road Trip 2013 checked out our new national supercomputer.

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
4 min read

Some of the enormous amount of cables and wires required to connect the thousands of nodes in Blue Waters, the new supercomputer at the National Petascale Computing Facility at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana National Center for Supercomputing Applications/University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana

CHAMPAIGN, Ill.--If you are a scientist, engineer, or academic in need of time on a supercomputer, March 28, 2013 was a very big day.

That was the day that the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana brought its new baby online. Known as Blue Waters, the new machine instantly became one of the world's most powerful supercomputers, and, perhaps more importantly for those whose work requires access to such machines, became a lifeline for massive computing capability.

Up close with America's national supercomputer, Blue Waters (pictures)

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For years, the University of Illinois has been a leader in computing. Mosaic, the world's first Web browser was created here, and the school has long maintained supercomputers. But Blue Waters takes it to a whole new level.

Funded by an initial National Science Foundation development grant of $208 million, and supplemented by $151 million in additional NSF money to run the system for the next five years, Blue Waters was designed specifically to be a national computer, available to any scientist, engineer, or academic with a proposal worthy of such a machine.

In order to access Blue Waters -- which was installed in a new University of Illinois building known as the National Petascale Computing Facility -- researchers must submit their proposals to the National Science Foundation. If they're chosen, they get time on the computer, which can perform more than a quadrillion calculations a second.

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Among the types of applications that the NSF tends to award time to are those working on the science of earthquakes, hurricanes, astrophysics, and high-energy physics. The Blue Waters Web site continually shows an updated chart of how much of the machine's computing power is going to each of many different fields. For example, as of this writing, 773 jobs had been started, 830 were queued up, and 738 were finished. In total, as of this writing, 27.5 percent of Blue Waters' nodes were devoted to lattice quantum chromodynamics, 17.5 percent were working on the Computational Microscope, 13.3 percent were focused on type 1a supernovae, and so on.

Recently, the university's own Klaus Schulten generated international notice when he used Blue Waters to figure out the exact chemical structure of the HIV capsid, a protein shell protecting the potentially deadly virus's genetic material, and a key to its virulence.

Yesterday, as part of Road Trip 2013, I visited the National Petascale Computing Facility for a close-up look at Blue Waters, and the infrastructure that runs one of the world's newest and most important computers.

Though the computer can complete in excess of a quadrillion calculations each second, it's capable of performing ten times that many at its peak capacity. That equates to a speed 3 million times faster than a normal laptop.

Providing all that computing power is 22,640 Cray XE6 nodes and 3,072 Cray XK7 nodes that have NVIDIA graphics processor acceleration. Each of the XE6 nodes have 64 GB of memory per node, while the XK7s have 32 GB of memory.

When those using the system need short-term storage, they can count on part of Blue Waters' 26 petabytes of online dedicated storage. Those with longer-term needs have access to its 380 petabytes of long-term tape storage.

While those numbers are impressive, Blue Waters could become even bigger. The National Petascale Computing Facility has 20,000 square feet dedicated to supercomputers, but only about half of that is being used. Further, the facility is currently using just over half of its power capacity. And while its cooling system is massive, requiring 5,400 tons of chilled water to keep Blue Waters operating smoothly, it's clear there's room to grow.

Blue Waters, at the National Petascale Computing Facility, at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The National Science Foundation's grant is meant to last five years. After that, it's not certain what will happen to Blue Waters. In supercomputing terms, five years is a lifetime, and what seems powerful today will almost surely seem archaic and pedestrian half a decade from now.

But for now, the National Petascale Computing Facility is one of the most exciting spots in the world for those interested in and requiring supercomputers. If you're the type of person who needs to study type 1a supernovae, or do any of a wide variety of other deeply complex computing tasks, the National Science Foundation is waiting to hear from you. You might just get time on the machine.