Our Science Digests embrace complex issues around our science, technologies, and mission in a series of mini-articles that provide a context for our historical approach, current problem solving and our vision for the future.
Radical supercomputingExtreme speeds, big data, powerful simulations
Powered by supercomputers, researchers
and decision makers use the CAVE to interact with virtual environments of everything from nuclear detonations to protein synthesis or the birth of galaxies. CAVE stands for Cave Automatic Virtual Environment or immersive virtual reality environment.
Computer modeling and simulation is now an integral part of science, and processing demands and capabilities have exploded. Los Alamos is continually breaking barriers, unveiling the world’s first petaflop (1 million billion flops, or operations per second) supercomputer, Roadrunner, a few years ago. And that is already outdated technology, as our Trinity machine on the horizon may reach 40 petaflops.
Managers at the SCC inspect the double floor beneath the acre-size supercomputing room. Several of the giant air-cooling units are visible in the foreground and behind the managers. The Laboratory is anticipating and preparing for the increased demands of the next generation of computers: Exascale.
Today, a megawatt (MW) of power costs $590K per year. Roadrunner used 2 MW per year. Cielo, the Laboratory’s newest supercomputer, is a 3 MW machine. Trinity, the "next-generation" of computer in the concept phase, will be a 12 MW machine, costing $7 million in power for a year.
The high winds blowing beneath the supercomputer room are generated by the massive air-cooling units. Supercomputers are cooled by chilled air circulating at the rate of 2.5 million cubic feet per minute. Both water and wind combine to make sure these high-powered machines keep running without interrupting experimental data while it is processed, which for some experiments takes weeks or months.
The amount of water required to cool the air that, in turn, cools a supercomputer is staggering. By the end of the decade, as supercomputers become more powerful and require more cooling, the SCC is predicted to double its water use to 100,000,000 gallons. Los Alamos is designing and funding infrastructure developments to anticipate the increased use of natural resources without negatively affecting northern New Mexico.
Hollywood produces simulations that appear to be real and do not need to reflect reality; in contrast, Los Alamos needs simulations that reflect how nature really works. Weapons scientists must produce a high-resolution representation of real events, as nature would unfold them. To achieve the highest fidelity simulations possible, we use the largest computers available and generate big data at an ever increasing scale. Sustaining an exponentially-larger computer complex to provide continuous service and accurate data is a serious challenge for Los Alamos' computer technicians and planners.
Large-scale data analysis and visualization capabilities are enabled by supercomputers using facilities such as the Los Alamos Powerwall Theater and the immersive CAVE. The Big Cave users and visitors wear special glasses to view 3D animated projections of extremely high resolution. They experience vividly everything from incredibly close views of nuclear detonations and working with new glove box designs to observing biological functions at the molecular level and the behavior of entire galaxies. The national laboratories simulate systems that are otherwise difficult or impossible to test.
Researchers investigate details of an astronomical simulation in the CAVE at the Los Alamos Super Computing Center. Interacting with visualizations helps researchers test their hypotheses and imagine new solutions to problems that have puzzled scientists for ages. For instance, After the discovery of the Chicxulub crater at the tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, scientists began developing numerical models to understand the sequence of events during the impact and their consequences. The rapidly increasing power of supercomputers and sophistication of simulations facilitated this research.
A user interactively assembling a mechanical joint inside a virtual environment in the CAVE. The glasses and hand-held wand are motion tracked to allow free movement of objects within the virtual world. This capability allows designers to test and validate design options, create and verify safety plans and provide training experience for workers.
A simulation of a foam material being crushed under a gravitational load, projected in an immersive display room. The coloring indicates stress in the material (magenta is greatest). Multi-disciplinary teams can join together and interact in the CAVE environment sharing a common learning experience and testing their experimental data in virtual-reality, full-scale, accurate simulations.