Atos-AMD System to Quintuple Supercomputing Power at European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts

By Oliver Peckham

January 15, 2020

The United Kingdom-based European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), a supercomputer-powered weather forecasting organization backed by most of the countries in Europe, has signed a four-year, $89-million contract with Atos in a deal that is expected to quintuple its computing power.

BullSequana XH2000

Atos will supply the Centre with its BullSequana XH2000 supercomputer, which will be hosted in a new datacenter in Bologna, Italy. The supercomputer – which will use AMD Epyc 7742 (64-core, 2.25 GHz) processors, alongside HDR InfiniBand from Mellanox and a DDN storage solution – is expected to become fully operational in 2021 following its installation in 2020. The new contract was approved by ECMWF’s Council of Member States last month after an international bidding process.

“One cannot overestimate the importance of accurate weather prediction,” said Günther Tschabuschnig, convener of the ECMWF subgroup that selected Atos. “This has never been truer than in our current age, as the effects of climate change are increasingly felt. Individuals and societies need ever greater amounts of information to ensure they are prepared.”

“Atos brings an impressive track record of success in this field,” Tschabuschnig said, “and its background in delivering advanced supercomputing solutions to some of the world’s best meteorological services will ensure we are placed on a firm footing for success.”

ECMWF intends to fully leverage that firm footing, promising a series of advances with the new computing power. The Centre highlighted how the new computing capacity will contribute toward improving the ensemble forecast’s horizontal resolution from 18 km to 10 km (enabling better forecasts of surface temperatures and winds); improving the same forecast’s vertical resolution from 91 layers to 137, matching the current high-resolution forecast; producing daily extended-range forecasts (up from twice a week); and amplifying ECMWF’s ongoing work to achieve a 5 km ensemble forecast by 2025.

“Thanks to this investment,” said Dr. Florence Rabier, ECMWF’s director general, “we will now be able to run higher resolution forecasts in under an hour, meaning better information will be shared with our Member States even faster to enable much improved weather forecasts as they combine this enhanced information with their own data and predictions. As governments and society continue to grapple with the impacts of increasingly severe weather, we are also proud to be relying on a supercomputer designed to maximize energy efficiency.”

ECMWF’s last contract, a $36-million deal with Cray, was signed in January 2016. That contract led to the upgrading and expansion of ECMWF’s twin Cray XC30 supercomputers and their accompanying Cray Sonexion storage system, both the result of a prior 2013 contract. The upgraded Cray XC40 supercomputers more than doubled ECMWF’s computing power, delivering a peak performance of 8.5 petaflops against a previous peak of 3.6 petaflops under the XC30s. 

ECMWF’s new supercomputer is the latest escalation in an increasingly turbulent weather prediction war that is being fought on several fronts. Just last June, the United States’ Global Forecast System received a major upgrade that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hoped would help to reestablish the U.S. as a leader in international weather modeling. In late 2018, the Korean Institute of Atmospheric Prediction Systems introduced a challenger to the U.K. Met Office’s popular Unified Model, which has served as a standard for most major weather organizations for over 25 years.

Over the years, Cray has picked up some significant business from this one-upsmanship: the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, for instance, secured a pair of Cray XC40s in early 2018, and the UK Met Office continues to utilize three XC40 systems, an XC50 system and Cray’s Urika-XC AI and analytics tools. Cray might be seeing some storm clouds on the horizon, however, with ECMWF’s move to Atos – a European company, and a selection in line with recent initiatives like EuroHPC that aim to prioritize (and develop) homegrown technologies. Just two months ago, Atos won a similar contract with Météo-France, France’s national meteorological service, to supply two BullSequana XH2000-based supercomputers.

This latest contract also comes on the heels of a busy year for ECMWF in the supercomputing sector. Last year, ECMWF’s deputy director of research, Peter Bauer, took the stage at ISC 2019 to make the case for weather and climate as the “perfect application for exascale,” and the Centre also participated in a high-level study (presented at SC19) intended to improve the suitability of modern supercomputers for weather and climate applications. With its new supercomputers en route, the Centre seems better-equipped than ever to advocate for – and represent – the rich relationship between weather forecasting and HPC.

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