Touring Blue Waters, One of the World's Fastest Supercomputers

By Noah Malmed, Computer Science '15

The Urbana campus is home to one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world, Blue Waters. Last Friday, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) hosted an #IllinoisWelcome Tour at the National Petascale Computing Facility (NPCF) in Research Park. 

New and returning students, faculty, and staff were invited to take a look at Blue Waters and hear about how people are using supercomputing in their research. I took this opportunity to check it out.

I’m a senior Computer Science major. I admit this is my first time seeing Blue Waters. The first thing I learned is that supercomputers are actually somewhat small. Sure, they're big in comparison to a laptop or, especially, a phone. But the building that houses them is absolutely huge. The supercomputer is actually a very small part of NPCF. 

Blue Waters tour

#IllinoisWelcome tour of Blue Waters on Thursday, August 27

Supercomputers require very specific buildings to meet the massive overhead it takes to power them. A large portion of the NPCF is devoted to power and cooling. These sections of the facility are much larger than the supercomputer itself.

Water pipes

Water cooling system at NPCF

What supercomputers lack in (relative) size they make up for in speed. Supercomputers are basically normal computers that operate at a much a higher level. For instance, Blue Waters has approximately 3 million times the computational power of a standard laptop.

Blue Waters is built to be a versatile machine, not favoring processing power over memory. It works by distributing work over thousands of processors to process problems and generate data quickly. Particle physics, gene sequences, and GIS projects frequently use supercomputing power to solve complex problems.

This power takes a toll on hardware.

Supercomputers are not immune to failure. Many full-time staff are devoted to maintaining Blue Waters. They swap out parts frequently to ensure that the equipment stays healthy. Despite this constant care, Blue Waters has a short lifespan.

After 5 years, Blue Waters as it currently exists will end. Blue Waters is funded through a 5-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The project began in March 2013. 

The NSF may decide to extend the grant or to decommission the supercomputer. Many other supercomputers are salvageable as usable computers after their main time is up. However, due to its size and infrastructure, Blue Waters will need to be broken up into pieces to be usable in other projects.

"Whenever it is decommissioned, the Blue Waters hardware will become the property of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In the past, Illinois and NCSA have has been able to gift out our supercomputer resources to other research institutions on campus to enable their departmental research. For example, Ember was gifted to the IGB Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB)," says Elizabeth Murray, Media Communications Specialist at NCSA.

Want to use Blue Waters but don’t know how? The NPCF is staffed with professionals who help people use supercomputers efficiently. This allows many researchers from different academic backgrounds to use supercomputing in their work, without having to be supercomputing experts themselves.

Students can also get involved with supercomputing. The NCSA has paid internships available for both graduate and undergraduate students. If you are a student and are interested in getting involved with the NCSA, all student outreach is managed through SPIN (Students Pushing Innovation).

Better yet, come see student work in person this Thursday. NCSA is hosting a showcase of all undergraduate interns’ work with supercomputers. and there's free pizza. Learn more about the showcase. 

Keep an eye out for our recap of the showcase on Friday.

All images courtesy of Noah Malmed.