US to Triple Its Supercomputing Capacity for Weather and Climate with Two New Crays

By Oliver Peckham

February 20, 2020

The blizzard of news around the race for weather and climate supercomputing leadership continues. Just three days after the UK announced a £1.2 billion plan to build the world’s largest weather and climate supercomputer, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has announced plans to triple its operational supercomputing capacity for weather and climate. 

The new supercomputing deployment, which is expected to triple computational capacity and double storage and interconnect speed, will consist of two new Cray Shasta systems (a primary system and a backup system), each with a peak capability of 12 petaflops.

[For all the system details, see our follow-up article.]

“The National Weather Service ran a competitive acquisition to ensure we have the supercomputing power needed to implement all the great modeling advancements we anticipate over the next several years,” said Louis W. Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service (NWS). “This is an exciting time for all of us in the weather research and operations community, with bold changes on the horizon. We are making sure NOAA is ready.”

The new Crays will replace four existing systems: Luna and Surge, a pair of Cray XC40s; and Mars and Venus, a pair of Dell-outfitted systems. While the outgoing systems are split between Reston, Virginia, and Orlando, Florida, their successors – as-yet unnamed – will be housed in Manassas, Virginia, and Phoenix, Arizona. Together with existing research and development systems (located at NOAA sites in West Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Colorado), NOAA’s computing power will reach an aggregate 40 peak petaflops.

The refresh, which is expected to be completed by early 2022 after a code migration and testing period, explicitly aims at keeping the U.S. globally competitive among weather forecasters. 

“We are committed to put America back on top of international leadership with the best weather forecasts, powered by the fastest supercomputers and world-class weather models,” said Neil Jacobs, acting administrator of NOAA. The move makes sense as competition heats up: beyond the UK announcement, the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) last month announced plans to quintuple its own weather and climate supercomputing capacity through a four-year, $89-million contract with Atos.

The new systems will work with NOAA’s Earth Prediction Innovation Center (EPIC), a joint effort to advance U.S. operational modeling by inviting outside developers to collaborate on improvements. The new supercomputers will help to implement those improvements into NOAA’s Global Forecast System (GFS).

“Through EPIC, we have an opportunity to regain our footing as a world leader in global weather prediction,” Jacobs said. “NOAA is excited for the incredible opportunity ahead to partner with university and industry scientists and engineers to advance U.S. numerical weather prediction, and this supercomputer upgrade lays the foundation for that to happen.”

Just last summer, the U.S. announced that the GFS had received a major upgrade – a new dynamical core, its first in 40 years – that dramatically improved its weather modeling abilities. At the time, the upgrade was described by Jacobs as “the first step in [NOAA’s] work to deliver the Next-Generation Global Prediction System – or NGGPS – which is an ongoing effort and will include a series of future upgrades.” Now, it seems, the future is here.

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