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Brian Boyer/Medill

Intrepid, the BlueGene/P supercomputer and its keepers at Argonne National Laboratory.

Deep in the woods, a computer roars

by Brian Boyer
April 22, 2008


Brian Boyer/Medill

This building surrounds another interior building that contains what is likely to be confirmed the world's second most powerful computer.

An aging corrugated steel structure next to a gravel lot in the middle of a forest preserve 25 miles southwest of the Loop houses a smaller building made of cinder blocks and painted gray. Inside sits one of the most powerful computers ever built.

This computer, named Intrepid, is capable of computing over 556 trillion arithmetic calculations per second, likely making it "the number two system in the world," according to Rick Stevens, associate laboratory director for computing and life sciences at Argonne National Laboratory, home of the fierce calculating machine.

It is difficult to compare the power of a personal computer with a system of this power because of their vastly differing architectures. But it is safe to say that Intrepid cranks out the computing power equivalent to several hundred thousand brand new Apple laptops.

IBM built the system, known as a BlueGene/P, for the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, as part of the U.S. Department of Energy's race to lead the world in computing power.  It was celebrated in a dedication ceremony Monday.

The official ranking will be known in June when the best minds of the supercomputing world gather at an annual conference in  Dresden. Still, this device is probably the fastest computer openly available to the science community.

Other computers of the echelon are not always available to scientists. To gain access to Intrepid, scientific suitors need only demonstrate the merits of their work, as they do for the use of other research facilities at Argonne.

"The system over the next year is going to be allocated to more than 20 projects that range from the study of a molecular basis for disease to visualizing the miracles of nanophotonics to designing the next generation of fuel efficient jet engines. It's really a general tool that can be applied to many areas of science," said Stevens.

But the machine's potential uses extend beyond the physical sciences. Simulations that model the impacts of climate change are nothing new, but the power of this machine makes possible analysis of a significantly more complex problem such as human reactions to climate change.

"The actual climate change that occurs will depend on how humans respond," said Ian Foster, director of the Computation Institute, a joint venture of the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.

"You are trying to understand the interactions among a very large number of actors: people, companies, different aspects of the economy, plus the environmental system, the climate, hydrology, the carbon system," Foster said.  "Each of those can be modeled with a fair degree of detail. And if you add them all together, you've got something that will require hundreds of thousands of processors."

Intrepid is contained within five black cabinets, each as tall as a man and as long as a pair of pickup trucks, that hold a total of 163,840 processors grouped into 40,960 quad-core processors. Their sharp edges and raked-back profiles accentuate the dull roar that makes difficult holding a conversation in the room.

But the noise is not heard by the hikers and cyclists at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, where the trails make a circuit around Intrepid as scientists use it to better understand the natural world.