Protecting Lives and Property with Increasingly Powerful HPC Systems

To advance weather, climate and ocean modeling, NOAA relies on the new Orion supercomputer at Mississippi State University

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The High Performance Computing Collaboratory (HPC²) at Mississippi State University (MSU) is a coalition of member institutes and centers that share the common objective of using HPC to advance excellence in computational science and engineering. In fact, MSU is a recognized leader in high performance computing (HPC), having had a supercomputer listed on 27 of the last 48 TOP500 lists.

The supercomputing center at MSU has been behind critical projects, such as safeguarding the John Glenn Space Shuttle mission, and providing resources for simulation and design for military vehicles, data analytics for the U.S. Department of Energy, cybersecurity research for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and ocean and storm surge modeling for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In recent years, supercomputers have become both more prevalent and more powerful, amplifying their ability to impact the average person’s daily life, especially when it comes to something that affects us every day and is constantly shifting in previously unpredictable ways: the weather.

While keeping your shoes dry is nice, the researchers at NOAA and MSU have a loftier goal: protecting people and property from devastating storms, hurricanes, tornadoes and other weather-related disasters.

Improving forecasting models

As weather conditions around the globe become increasingly volatile — and dangerous — accurate weather forecasting, climate predictions and ocean modeling are essential for providing early warnings that can save lives and property.

HPC provides the compute capacity required to model the oceans and simulate weather and climate changes with increasing precision. These models help researchers predict long-term climate changes as well as short- and medium-range weather patterns. HPC allows researchers and scientists to get rapid results from massive numbers of calculations and to simulate the incredibly complex physical phenomena required for accurate weather and climate insights. Improved accuracy over longer timelines enables greater certainty in planning and responding to weather events.

As artificial intelligence (AI) comes into wider use, running AI algorithms on powerful HPC systems can help researchers even more. AI can analyze vast reams of simulated climate data, capturing tiny details more efficiently and accurately to reduce uncertainties of how the climate will respond to various events. AI can also be trained to describe complex phenomena — such as cloud behavior — in greater detail to enhance the quality of climate simulations. It can analyze results to advise researchers which climate models are better than others at certain tasks.

NOAA currently provides researchers with access to HPC resources capable of 10.5 petaFLOPS from its centers in Colorado, West Virginia, Tennessee and Princeton, New Jersey. But researchers are always thirsty for more compute power, which is why NOAA tapped HPC2 and MSU to provide researchers with one of the fastest, most powerful supercomputers in the world.

Sunny with a chance of over five petaFLOPS

To advance the state of weather, climate and oceanic research, NOAA recently awarded MSU with grants totaling $22 million for a new supercomputer capable of performing up to an additional five quadrillion floating point operations per second (five petaFLOPS) of HPC capacity over NOAA’s existing research capabilities. The Orion supercomputer will provide the additional HPC capacity to run more complex models and simulations.

Craig McLean, NOAA assistant administrator for Oceanic and Atmospheric Research said in a recent NOAA research article, “We’re excited to support the development of this powerhouse of computing capacity at Mississippi State. Orion will join NOAA’s network of computer centers around the country, and boost NOAA’s ability to conduct cutting-edge research to advance weather, climate and ocean forecasting products vital to protecting American lives and property.”

The new, more powerful system is built on Dell EMC PowerEdge C6420 Servers with Intel® Xeon® Gold 6148 processors and InfiniBand® HDR networking. It boasts 72,000 cores and nearly 350TB of RAM, housed in 28 water-cooled computer cabinets.

Orion is MSU’s largest and fastest supercomputer, clocking in at nearly 10 times faster than the next most recent computing system, called Shadow. Orion boasts five petaFLOPS compared to Shadow’s 593 teraFLOPS. In June 2019, TOP500 ranked Orion as the fourth-fastest HPC system at a U.S. academic institution, and the 62nd-fastest supercomputer worldwide.

Orion’s resources will be instrumental in forwarding the goals of research scientists and students working with NOAA, MSU and their collaborators.

Getting to know the unknowable

The teams at MSU and NOAA believe the new supercomputer will enable researchers and scientists to do more advanced research that will benefit more people worldwide. As Zach Goldstein, NOAA Chief Information Officer and Director of High Performance Computing and Communication stated, “The partnership with MSU provides greater research opportunities with our collaborators and provides millions of compute hours to enhance NOAA’s scientific research.”

Trey Breckenridge, director of high performance computing at Mississippi State’s HPC2, agreed, saying “Orion helps strengthen our historic ties to NOAA as host of a cooperative institute and builds upon the university’s pioneering work in high performance computing technologies used to solve real-world problems.”

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