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IBM works on better storm warnings

With Atlantic hurricane season starting, the National Weather Service shows off a Big Blue supercomputer designed to let it warn about weather patterns sooner.

With Atlantic hurricane season just getting under way, the National Weather Service is showing off a new supercomputer designed to allow for more accurate weather predictions.

In addition to accuracy, the agency hopes the system will let it warn about hurricanes and other weather patterns sooner--five days in advance, as opposed to three. The IBM-built supercomputer is part of a deal announced last year that Big Blue hopes will eventually generate more than $200 million in revenue over the next nine years.

The supercomputer will be built in stages. The first phase, which began operating last month, is a cluster of 44 IBM p690 "Regatta" servers along with 42 terabytes of IBM FastT500 storage servers. The system now has 7.3 teraflops (trillion calculations per second) of computing power, but IBM expects the final system to be capable of more than 100 teraflops by 2009.

And rather than being housed at the weather service's headquarters, the system will reside at and be managed out of an IBM facility in Gaithersburg, Md. Although IBM has been pushing an on-demand computing initiative in which companies and institutions rent computing power, this is more like a traditional sale.

"This falls into a rather more conventional model," said Dave Turek, vice president of IBM's deep computing unit. "They have a long-term relationship. It (the supercomputer) is for their exclusive use."

One outcome of the new computer could be better predictions from TV weather forecasters, as compared with the 50 percent chance of rain that often gets predicted today.

"The objective ought to be to get that to an understanding of 95 percent probability of rain (as well as) where, how much, etc.," Turek said.

Turek said that such forecasts affect far more than decisions on whether to pack an umbrella, saying the predictions enabled by the IBM supercomputer will be vitally important to military agencies and industries like the cruise and transportation businesses, where weather plays a major role.

"Amplifying the precision of forecasts both in terms of advanced warning and (accuracy) has significant and material benefits to many segments throughout the U.S. economy," Turek said.