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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2
   

The Intimidata and Friends
by Paul Tooby, ’71

The San Diego Supercomputer Center in the Internet Age

 
     

Flash back to 1986, when the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) first opened its doors at the north end of the UC San Diego campus.

Then, the centerpiece was a super machine clocked at what one newspaper article called a “mind-boggling” billion calculations per second—a gigaflop. Actually, the peak performance was closer to 800 million calculations per second, but still plenty quick for then. Dozens of researchers, all from traditional disciplines such as astrophysics and oceanography, were lining up to take advantage of the newest supercomputer, which promised to usher in a new era of scientific discovery.

Fast forward to 2007, and it’s easy to see how things have changed. For one, what was “super” in 1986 is slower than today’s laptops. Together, SDSC’s high-performance computers are capable of a peak speed of more than 30 teraflops (that’s trillions of calculations per second), over 30,000 times faster than the Center’s original supercomputer. And instead of dozens of users in the queue, about 4,000 researchers are now being served by a staff of some 400 interdisciplinary scientists, engineers and technologists.

Two decades ago, a UCSD urban planning professor like Keith Pezzoli wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of SDSC’s services, particularly for data management.

Pezzoli is working with SDSC experts to apply advanced data technologies in a regional planning collaboration spanning the San Diego-Tijuana region. SDSC staff have brought together diverse information on the occurrence of toxic substances, human health and the environment into a unified system. This has provided a powerful tool to explore such questions as to how hazardous materials in the environment correlate geographically with indicators of human health.

“Being able to use SDSC’s advanced data technologies in regional planning is opening amazing new ways of integrating very different kinds of data from our partners,” says Pezzoli, co-organizer of the Regional Workbench Consortium, part of UCSD’s Superfund Basic Research Project. “We can collaborate more effectively to improve the quality of life, on both sides of the border.”

Powering Science

The big computers housed in SDSC’s ground-floor machine room provide the power that makes Pezzoli’s research possible. And these machines continue their dizzying growth in speed and memory.

SDSC’s DataStar supercomputer runs at 15.6 zeraflops— equivalent to about 5,000 typical laptops and more than 15 times faster than just six years ago, when the Center installed the world’s first system for academic research to reach the one teraflop milestone. SDSC also houses another of the world’s top supercomputers, called IBM BlueGene Data (known inside the Center as the “Intimidata”), which packs 17.2 teraflops and more than 6,000 processors into just three racks of space.

Such dramatic increases in computing power are allowing researchers to develop more realistic models for work that ranges from diagnosing brain disease to exploring the birth of the Universe to studying the massive earthquakes that threaten California.

Using SDSC supercomputers, scientists from the Southern California Earthquake Center have run the most realistic simulations ever of a magnitude 7.7 quake on the southern San Andreas Fault. In a preview of expected ground motion in the next “big one,” this “virtual earthquake” revealed unexpectedly large shaking in the Los Angeles basin.
These new insights could save lives and property through better estimates of seismic risk, earthquake-resistant structural designs and emergency preparations.

Looking forward, SDSC has submitted a proposal—with a national team of collaborators—to build the supercomputer of tomorrow. Known as a “petascale” system, this machine will churn through calculations at the unimaginable rate of one thousand trillion calculations per second. It would take a person operating a hand-held calculator nearly 30 million years to do the calculations this system will complete in only one second.

SDSC’s facilities are also growing. When it opens in June 2008, a building expansion will nearly double the Center’s size to 160,000 square feet, and include special collaboration spaces, a state-of-the-art visualization lab, and an expanded machine room for even more powerful supercomputers.

Preserving Digital Data

In the twenty-first century, mushrooming data collections have become a major driver of progress. SDSC is an internationally recognized leader in the vital challenge of managing and preserving this deluge of digital information. And anyone who finds they need information on a stack of old 5-inch floppy disks, but has a modern laptop, can appreciate the problem of accessing stored data.

SDSC plays a leading role in pioneering collaborations with the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Science Foundation, and other partners in building a reliable capability to preserve the nation’s digital intellectual capital for future generations. To make this possible, SDSC’s storage capacity was recently expanded to 25 petabytes—that’s 25,000 trillion bytes, more than 1,000 times the digital text equivalent of the Library of Congress’s printed collection—giving UC San Diego the largest data capacity of any academic institution in the world. SDSC’s innovative relationship with the UCSD Libraries has resulted in the development of a new project (Chronopolis)—focused on preserving valuable data collections for 100 years or more.

Connecting the Dots

SDSC’s growth reflects the nation’s expanding need for new integrated capabilities known as “cyberinfrastructure”— weaving together advanced computing, collaboration, visualization, data management and other services to make them easily usable by researchers in growing collaborations.

“Information technology is transforming the way science is done,” says SDSC’s director, Fran Berman, Ph.D. “As science becomes more interdisciplinary, it takes teams of information technologists and scientists working with end-users to provide the cyberinfrastructure that can bring amazing new scientific and engineering discoveries to life.”
On campus, this interdisciplinary approach is evident in the partnerships that SDSC has with over two dozen departments, institutions and programs.

“SDSC today is more than supercomputers and science—we work with communities from art to astronomy to AIDS researchers on projects that are helping create the future,” says Berman. “We’re proud to be a ‘national treasure’ on UCSD’s campus and always happy to show off our state-of-the-art facilities to visitors. At SDSC, every day brings new discoveries and a glimpse into
the future.”

Paul Tooby, ’71, is a senior science writer at the San Diego Supercomputer Center.

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"SDSC's storage capacity is more than 1,000 times the digital text equivalent of the Library of Congress's printed collection."