If a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, will a hurricane destroy Florida? If a satellite sees clouds in Nevada, will it mean rain for crops or mud slides down mountains? Questions like these need a computer with real muscle, run by the best people, and that’s what UW-Madison now has.
The S4 supercomputer built on campus this year is now fully operational and the most powerful resource of its kind at the university’s disposal. It’s working to fully incorporate data from satellites in models of the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere—data that could help improve our understanding and forecasting of these complex systems.
Just how powerful is the new supercomputer? Well, it’s gotten harder to make computer processors faster, so engineers are placing more than one computer brain or “core” on each chip. Even your iPhone has two cores that work together to send text messages as quickly as possible. A new iMac has four cores on its single chip, for blazing fast Facebook rendering.
The processors in the new supercomputer at UW-Madison’s Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) each have 12 cores per chip, while a typical desktop has only one. There are four of these chips in each unit.
Oh, and there are a whopping 64 of these units working together in the S4, keeping track of a multitude of data and grid points over the Earth’s surface. In terms of RAM, the working memory of any computer, the S4’s processing units alone have over 2,000 times what you’d find in an iMac.
This speedy behemoth fills up five ceiling-high racks in the 1225 Dayton St. building. There are 26 more computers serving as the collective hard disk, providing a total of 456 terabytes in storage space.
To fund the construction of the S4 supercomputer, the SSEC received a grant of $1 million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) earlier this year. This decision was made in favor of UW-Madison largely because computer engineers on campus have the special skills to create such extreme computing systems.
The S4 supercomputer project extends a collaboration between the NOAA and UW-Madison’s SSEC. NOAA researchers, including many at UW-Madison, use the supercomputer for important computationally complex tasks.
The S4 supercomputer is a powerful new resource on campus. Its availability to researchers will help advance atmospheric and oceanic modeling techniques for national applications and will expand the capabilities of UW-Madison researchers working on many other projects.