SGI may have lost its footing in the commercial computing
market, but the company remains a major player when it comes to building
machines that can predict when the next ice age will hit.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has agreed to install 10 Origin 3800 computers that will be used for forecasting heavy-duty weather phenomena such as hurricanes and climatic trends such as global warming.
Raytheon, long a supplier for big-ticket government contracts, won the
four-year, $34 million contract to supply NOAA with the SGI computers, NOAA
said. SGI will supply eight 128-processor Origin 3800 machines and two
64-processor machines, SGI said. The systems will be installed at NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory
in Princeton, N.J. After four years, the contract may be extended with
another $33 million purchase.
The computers will be used to conduct a number of computationally intense
simulations, including modeling hurricanes and El Niño weather patterns, said Brian
Gross, a GFDL physical scientist who helped select the new computers.
"We build and execute numerical models of the atmosphere and ocean," he
The Origin 3000 series from SGI, introduced in July, is the latest
hardware design the Mountain View, Calif., company has launched in a bid to
return to profitability. With the new design, SGI has almost completely left
behind its once-grand ambitions to sell general-purpose servers, choosing
instead to focus on its core, niche market of technical customers.
The SGI machines will take over for a number of Cray computers, he said. Compared to the Cray computers, the new systems will perform simulations four times as fast, he added, a key advantage for the computationally intensive task of simulating a world sliced up into a large number of interacting regions.
In March, SGI sold Cray to Tera
Computer, which adopted the Cray name.
SGI is not the only one angling for the climate-modeling market. IBM is
making inroads with its RS/6000
line, now renamed eServer P
series, which is used at another federally funded lab, the National Center for Atmospheric
In addition, the Navy in August bought an $18 million IBM machine to model
oceanic weather. And in 1998 IBM won a $35.6 million bid at the
National Weather Service.
Meanwhile, Compaq Computer is making a push of its own into technical computing, winning a bid at the Los Alamos National Laboratory to build what
is expected to become the world's fastest supercomputer in a contract worth
$200 million. The machine, called "Q," will be used to simulate the physics
of nuclear explosions, a task surprisingly similar to modeling the weather.
Modeling of nuclear explosions or weather patterns typically begins by
dividing a region into a three-dimensional grid, creating a stack of cells.
Each cell has its own physical characteristics, such as temperature,
pressure and humidity, and interacts with its neighbors according to
For example, high pressure in one cell may spread to the next, leading to a
The more cells that are used, the more accurately the model portrays
reality, but also the heavier the computational load.
Software for mathematical simulations therefore is tuned to take advantage
of the unique designs of high-end computers. But that careful adjustment
makes it difficult to move software from one computer to another--from, say, a Cray to an SGI machine.
The NOAA lab does not have to worry about the translation difficulty,
however, because it is moving to a new software model, Gross said. The new
software has been written to be more flexible, with a framework that can
accommodate several different components to handle atmospheric or oceanic
"It's easier to switch in and out separate pieces of climate and weather
models, such as a land or sea ice model," he said.
One advantage of the system is that it is better at handling the differences
between modeling the ocean and the atmosphere, he said. Typically, ocean
models divide the sea into smaller volumes that react very slowly. The
atmosphere, by contrast, uses much larger cells but shorter time scales.
It can be awkward cramming these two different approaches into a single
computer model, Gross said. But the modular approach "to a large extent lets
us not worry about how the atmosphere and the ocean talk to each other
within the computer program," he said.