New supercomputer at UAF 'big and bad'

Posted: Monday, June 24, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- With its psychedelic swirled purple casing and neon blue light on the front, the Cray SX-6 looks more like a sci-fi vending machine than a piece of cutting-edge technology.

But make no mistake, the Arctic Region Supercomputing Center's newest addition is the little brother of the ''biggest, baddest'' supercomputer in the world today.

''This is the first time this Japanese technology has been installed in the U.S.,'' said ARSC spokeswoman Jenn Wagaman, explaining that relaxation of U.S. trade regulations allowed the arrangement.

If you ask ARSC director Frank Williams if having the SX-6 -- nicknamed Rime for a weather phenomenon -- is a big deal, he just smiles.

''We don't want to gloat,'' he said.

The SX-6, on loan to the center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks for a year, will have a dual purpose at ARSC.

It will allow researchers to run their data through a computer that employs the same technology as the Earth Simulator, a Japanese weather computer that is 640 times bigger than the SX-6.

''Researchers have been coming up with bigger and bigger problems,'' Wagaman said. ''There is this infinite number of variables when you get to earth or global climate change.''

The ARSC will screen proposals from scientists to make sure they make the best use of the SX-6's resources, Williams said, and will contribute to the ARSC's other goal for the SX-6.

The computing world will be looking to the ARSC to see how the SX-6 works in practice.

''The researchers are going to ... test the computer,'' said Barbara Horner-Miller, associate ARSC director. ''The people that are going to come here are people that are doing very large data-correlated models.''

Examples include research on ocean circulation or global climate change. The ARSC will run researchers' data through both the SX-6 and proven supercomputers, Williams said, to find out how well the SX-6 actually works.

''We don't know for sure what is going to come out of this evaluation,'' Williams said, but everything indicates the SX-6 will be a success. ''We think it is really big and bad.''

The SX-6 uses vector processing, which are good for problems that are difficult to break down, Wagaman said.

And, like most supercomputers, the SX-6 has the ability to process massive amounts of data at a quick pace, Williams said. ''We take very large, complex models of physical phenomena and solve these models predictably.''

But what makes the SX-6 unique is the relationship between its processors and memory, he said.

Williams explained the basics: Supercomputers depend on memory to feed data into the processors. A fast processor with too little memory means the processor will sit idle waiting for data. A slower processor, or fewer of them, with lots of memory means the processor won't be able to keep up with the data flow.

''The basic difference (in the SX-6) is the way the memory is connected to the processors. The access to the memory by the processors is greatly enhanced. What this machine has is a highly effective way to feed that data,'' Williams said.

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