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March 28, 2001

John Bluck

NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA

650/604-5026 or 604-9000

Greg Slabodkin

SGI, Mountain View, CA




Simulating life’s beginning and accurately predicting hurricane paths are two distant dreams that came a small step closer to reality when NASA recently was first to "boot" what may be the most powerful parallel supercomputer of its kind.

Able to calculate airflow around an aircraft in a day instead of a year, the "SGI 512-processor Origin 3000" came to life at NASA Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley. Ames contributed innovations to previous test bed machines that helped make the 512-processor computer possible. To many people, the most impressive products of supercomputers like the Origin are animations that are the envy of Hollywood; but to scientists these ever-faster, electronic minds have the ability to unlock nature's secrets.

"What used to take a year to calculate on a single processor might be done in less than a day on a 512-processor machine," said Chris Henze of Ames, who is working on simulations of protein formation with colleague Andrew Pohorille.

"Nevertheless," said Henze, "with current supercomputer power it takes months or years of calculations to simulate how even a small protein molecule folds into a certain shape. This is important because a protein's shape largely determines what the protein can do, such as make muscles move or allow the immune system to recognize intruders. In the future, with even more powerful supercomputers, we hope to be able to design protein molecules with specific shapes and jobs."

The 512 will lead to faster and better development of spacecraft, according to John Ziebarth, deputy chief of the Numerical Aerospace Simulation Division at NASA Ames. "With large NASA computer codes, we are getting 10 times improvement in performance," he said.

"In one project underway at Ames, NASA scientists will be able to see important features in hurricanes," said Ames computer scientist Bob Ciotti. "Data from satellites and other observations analyzed on this class of machines will help us learn how to better predict hurricane behavior, or better answer important questions about global climate change.

Though the 512 greatly improves and speeds computations, Ames scientists continue to advance the supercomputing state-of-the-art with partner SGI, Mountain View, CA. NASA and SGI have been cooperating under a "memorandum of agreement" since 1998. "SGI is proud to be partnered with NASA Ames and their world-class scientists and engineers to help them analyze and solve America's most complex problems," said Anthony Robbins, president, SGI Federal.

For the last few years Ames computer scientists have encouraged SGI to connect many computer processor chips in a new way when building the largest of SGI's parallel supercomputers. These machines include many central processing unit (CPU) chips instead of just one or a few CPUs like older supercomputers. Within the last 5 years, microprocessors have become much more powerful, and computer makers have found that building a supercomputer with thousands of processors is cost-effective. But making it work efficiently has been a problem until now.

The solution, Ziebarth said, was to suggest to SGI that it modify its computer systems to act as if each had one large memory even though, in reality, each has a large number of memory units.

"We call this a ‘single system image’ (SSI)," Ziebarth said. Ames also encouraged SGI to combine pairs of parallel supercomputers into even bigger single machines. "We said to SGI, if you’ll build a 512-CPU system using SSI, then we have a technique that will speed up processing about 10 times." Earlier, NASA Ames programmer Jim Taft invented the technique, shared memory multi-level parallelism, that greatly simplifies authoring software for modern parallel-processor supercomputers by enabling easy communication across many CPUs.

To make the prototype 512 machine, Ames and SGI combined two 256-processor machines. Commercially available 512 machines, including the Origin 3000 that was booted this month at Ames, resulted from the experience gained in making the prototype. In a few days, the Army is expected to boot two more Origin 3000 512-machines, the second and third of their kind.

In the next few months, Ames and SGI will connect two commercial 512 machines to make a test bed 1024 SSI computer. "According to our projections, the 1024-processor machine could deliver about twice the performance of the 512," said Bill Feiereisen, chief of the Ames Numerical Aerospace Simulation Division.

Stunning images, animation and additional technical information about NASA Ames’ supercomputer efforts are available on the Internet at these URLs:

Image, Graphics and Animation Gallery

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