02 Nov SGI’s Wisconsin branch builds fastest supercomputer yet in four months
Chippewa Valley, Wis. — Silicon Graphics Inc. built the world’s fastest supercomputer in about 129 days, and it was the company’s Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, plant that pulled the project together. SGI announced the completion of the $50 million project for NASA last week.
The supercomputer, named Columbia after the space shuttle that crashed last year, runs on SGI’s Altix 3700 systems and 10,240 Intel Itanium 2 processors. Using 16 of its 20 installed Altix systems, the computer can perform a record 42.7 teraflops, or trillion calculations per second. This eclipses the previous efforts of Japan’s Earth Simulator, rated at 35.86 teraflops, and IBM’s Blue Gene/L experiment of 36.01 teraflops.
“The purpose of this machine is to provide the high-end calculations inside NASA for all our divisions and missions,” said William Thigpen, Columbia project manager. “If you look at all the high-end systems out there, this is ten times that.”
Columbia will be applied to the four main divisions of NASA: science, aeronautics, space exploration, and knowledge. The system will help the Return to Flight program to open a window for shuttle missions to resume in 2005. It will also be used to analyze fluid dynamics and air flow in spacecraft and provide a model for earthquakes and severe thunderstorms.
“It’s studying this ball — how it moves and how it evolves,” Thigpen said, “[and] it’s looking to the technology that will go to space.”
Thigpen said that the decision to create the Columbia supercomputer was based on the use of the SGI Altix power node at NASA. Since the node had been so successful, NASA officials contracted SGI to build 19 more for a full system, believing that by adding more components they could efficiently power a full computer network.
“We are definitely a prime manufacturing center,” said David Randall, director of manufacturing for SGI’s Chippewa Falls office, the company’s only manufacturing site. “We had the workforce and the technological base to move forward.”
Construction of the computer at Chippewa Falls took approximately 129 days, plus some time to contact suppliers and the main office in Mountain View, California. Four-hundred people participated directly in putting the computer together, half manufacturers and half engineers.
Columbia required 20 Altix Bx2 nodes to handle the 512-processor system, forcing the team to manufacture 19 in a timeframe normally spent on one or two. They also had to develop a specialized power cooling system, including water-cooled doors to keep the nodes from overheating.
“[Bx2] was a project on the drawing board, but engineering wound up pushing it forward for this,” Randall said. “We had to drive up our capacity.”
While the first two nodes were delivered to NASA on June 28, there was a gap of almost a month until the next ones arrived. Large deliveries arrived in late August and late September.
Despite the scope of the project, Thigpen said NASA’s confidence never faded. “It was sort of back-loaded … but in every case, SGI had it up and doing software diagnosis the next day,” he said. “We knew what the potential of the 512-microprocessor [system] was and it has proven well.”
Les Chappell is a staff writer for WTN and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.