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Massive infrastructures are needed to support supercomputers

Megawatts of power, millions of gallons of water, a football-field-size floor
March 25, 2013
Tip of the computing iceberg

The supercomputer room at Los Alamos is vast—essentially an acre. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. What’s really amazing is what’s under that floor.

When a supercomputer covers 6,000 square feet of floor space, how do its guardians find and fix problems in only an hour?

What’s “under the floor” of a supercomputer?


  • The infrastructure required to support a supercomputer includes megawatts of electricity to power it,millions of gallons of water to cool it, and tens of thousands of square feet of floor space, the area of a football field, to support it.
  • But the most important part of a supercomputer’s success is the people.

Roadrunner, the world’s first petaflop computer, joined other supercomputers in Los Alamos’s Strategic Computing Center’s (SCC) computer room in 2008. It is a big machine, containing 57 miles of fiber-optic cables and weighing a half-million pounds. It covers over 6,000 square feet of floor space, 1,200 square feet more than a football field’s end zone. But that represents only a portion of the computer room’s vast floor space, which is 43,500 square feet, essentially an acre—90 percent of a football field (minus the end zones). (Roadrunner has finished its work for the Laboratory and is being shut down.)

What is really amazing, however, lies beneath the supercomputer room floor. A trip straight down reveals more vast spaces crowded with machinery that users never see.

The computer room is the SCC’s second floor (the building has three stories), but that one floor is actually two, separated by almost four feet. That 4-foot space hosts the miles of bundled network cables, electrical power lines inside large-diameter conduit, and other subfloor equipment the supercomputers rely on. The double floor provides enough room for engineers and maintenance staff, decked out like spelunkers in hardhats and headlamps, to build and manage these subfloor systems.

Below this double floor, on the building’s first floor, is another acre-size room, a half-acre of which holds row upon row of cabin-size air-conditioning units. These cool the air and then blow it upwards into the computing room, where it draws the heat off the hard-working computers. The now-warmed air then rises to the third floor (basically an acre of empty space), whereupon it is drawn back down, at the rate of 2.5 million cubic feet per minute, to the first floor by the air coolers so the cooling cycle can begin again.

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