Inside NASA's world-class supercomputer center (photos)

NASA currently operates the sixth-most powerful supercomputer on Earth. It serves the entire agency, and dwarfs its predecessor.

Daniel Terdiman
1 of 18 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Newest Pleiades racks

At NASA's advanced supercomputing facility, at its Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., the space agency maintains Pleiades, which at a current official measurement of 973 teraflops--or 973 trillion floating point operations per second--is the world's sixth-most powerful computer.

Pleiades is used by NASA personnel across the agency for research in earth and space sciences, and for conducting giant simulations. The machine is almost fully subscribed--meaning that it is in use 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Inside the computing center, the agency maintains rack after rack of the SGI machines that make up Pleiades, most of which have 512 cores, or about 6 teraflops. But recently, the center added 32 new racks with 768 cores--some of which are seen here.

Things move fast in the world of supercomputers. When Pleiades was debuted in November 2008, it was measured at 487 teraflops and was the third-most powerful computer. Now, almost a year and a half later, it has dropped to sixth place on the list, but has doubled its power.

2 of 18 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Wall of 512-core racks

While the newest Pleiades racks have 768 cores, most, like those seen here, have 512 cores, and are measured at 6 teraflops.

The input/output room at NASA's advanced supercomputing facility, where the bulk of the Pleiades racks are located, is fully cooled, allowing the machines to stay at a steady temperature.

3 of 18 NASA Ames Research Center

Pleiades open

NASA uses more than 20 miles of InfiniBand double datarate cabling to connect the thousands of nodes used in Pleiades.
4 of 18 Goetz Klopfer, NASA Exploration Systems MissionDirectorate

Ares-1 visualization

Seen here is an image created with Pleiades that shows a visualization of the Ares-1's main engine plume interacting during a type-4 stage separation with the Interstage. To better depict the lower Mach numbers and the flowfield overall, the Mach contours are shown on a logarithmic scale.
5 of 18 Joseph Olejniczak, NASA Exploration Systems MissionDirectorate

Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle visualization

A calculation done on Pleiades of the computational fluid dynamics of the flow around the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle. The colors on the surface are pressure contours, and in order to help visualize the flow, streamlines are used.
6 of 18 Mian Chin, NASA Science MissionDirectorate

Global modeling of aerosols

On the left side of this image are aerosol optical depths observed by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on April 13, 2001, and August 22, 2001. On the right side are simulations of the optical depths done by the Goddard Chemistry Aerosol Radiation and Transport (GOCART) model. In the images, red indicates fine model aerosols like smoke and pollution, while green indicates coarse mode aerosols such as sea salt and dust. The April images depict the movement of heavy dust and pollution from Asia to the Pacific, and the transport of dust from Africa to the Atlantic. In the August images, there are big smoke plumes over Southern African and South America.
7 of 18 Todd Magee, NASA Aeronautics Research MissionDirectorate

Aerodynamics of the X-51

In this image, two computational fluid dynamics cases for the B-52 are shown for the X-51, which is expected to have its first flight sometime this year.
8 of 18 Daniel Terdiman/CNET


In 2004, after the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, NASA set out to investigate why the space ship had exploded. Among the ways they pursued that project was to roll out a new supercomputer. So in 2004, the Columbia supercomputer was turned on at NASA Ames. The machine, which is still operational today--though it's no longer the agency's primary supercomputer--debuted with a measurement of 60 teraflops and was, at the time, the world's second-most powerful computer. Over time, it ramped up to about 90 teraflops, but now operates at about 30 teraflops.

Seen here are several racks of discs for the Columbia supercomputer.

9 of 18 Daniel Terdiman/CNET


The sign for Pleiades in NASA's advanced supercomputing facility. Every three years or so, the space agency plans to begin working on the next level of supercomputers it will operate.
10 of 18 Daniel Terdiman/CNET


Another supercomputer still in operation in NASA's facility is Schirra--named after Mercury 7 astronaut Wally Schirra. According to Rupak Biswas, NASA's advanced supercomputing division chief, the Schirra computer is based on the IBM p575+ and has a total of 640 cores. Schirra was evaluated as a possible main supercomputer, but was passed over for SGI equipment. Still, because NASA bought it, the agency operates Schirra on an ongoing basis.
11 of 18 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Altix ICE 8400

The newest, 768-core-per-rack additions to Pleiades are a series of 32 SGI Altix ICE 8400s. The remaining racks in Pleiades, which have 512 cores each, are Altix ICE 8200s.
12 of 18 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

8200s rear

The back of a row of racks of 512-core Altix ICE 8200s, as seen in the input/output room at NASA's advanced supercomputing facility at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.
13 of 18 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Inside the 8400

A look inside of one of the 32 Altix ICE 8400 racks that are part of the Pleiades supercomputer.
14 of 18 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Refrigerator door

When the Columbia supercomputer was deployed in 2004, it was the first in the world to feature a refrigerator door that allowed for a blue pipe to bring in chilled water to cool the racks, and red pipes to carry out the heated water. Now, says division chief Rupak Biswas, these types of doors on supercomputer racks are the industry standard.
15 of 18 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Rupak Biswas

NASA advanced supercomputing division chief Rupak Biswas poses for a picture in front of a row of 512-core SGI Altix ICE 8200 racks, all part of the Pleiades supercomputer.
16 of 18 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Many rows

Each of these light-colored machines marks the beginning of another row of the racks of SGI machines that comprise Pleiades.
17 of 18 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Tape drive

This machine is a part of the supercomputing division's collection of tape drives that, together, archive 20 petabytes of data. Inside the machine, a robot arm reaches in and grabs tapes that have been requested and then brings them out for delivery to the proper personnel.
18 of 18 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The facility

An outside view of NASA's advanced supercomputing facility at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

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